Amy (R, 128 min.)
Director: Asif Kapadia
Documentary
A-

Everyone who’ll buy a ticket for Asif Kapadia’s shattering new documentary Amy knows how it ends. The specter of the preternaturally talented singer’s death informs every frame of the footage that makes up this film, from the achingly intimate home movies to the invasive, hectic paparazzi recordings.

Amy Winehouse’s life fits the classically tragic story of spoiled fame and fortune to perfection, the documentary’s patchwork narrative almost eerie in its cohesion and lucidity. She was a soul mature beyond her years, victimized by vultures in her inner circle as well as a public gleefully feasting on the details of her private life. Even though there’s plenty of blame to go around, Kapadia and Amy aren’t interested in pointing fingers. His only objective is to lament this beautiful, clever, sensitive woman’s untimely passing.

The film begins with an archival videorecording of a fourteen-year-old Winehouse serenading her friend with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” at a birthday party. Every facet of Winehouse’s complex, contradictory personality is on display here: her voice belies her age, a newly minted teenager emoting with the experience and pain of someone who’s lived a million years. Her technique is flawless, too. Winehouse’s voice bends and jumps to lightly touch upon every grace note. And yet the truly astonishing thing is how goddamn casual she makes it all seem, as if she’s tossed off this disarmingly gorgeous crooning without a second thought. She cares deeply about her craft while refusing to take anything—including and especially herself—seriously.

In this scene, as with every scene in the film, it’s impossible to ignore the piercingly sad circumstances of Winehouse’s death. The feisty, sweet girl who sang “Happy Birthday” stands in as point A, and the bloodied, emaciated skeleton found drunkenly wandering the streets of London provides the film with its inevitable point B. Flanked by two men more interested in a paycheck than her own well-being — her irredeemable father Mitch and Blake, her feckless ex-husband — Winehouse could not have been more poorly equipped for the celebrity thrust upon her. Fame devoured her whole and spat her out partially digested. All that a crippling addiction needs to take root is money, free time, and the slightest self-destructive impulse, and Winehouse’s slight impulse was more like an insatiable hunger.

Kapadia seamlessly traces the line connecting these two disparate states, selecting footage that highlights the rumblings of dysfunction in her early years and the tattered remnants of innocence that she was able to maintain in her final days. By jumping days, weeks, sometimes months ahead in time between clips, Kapadia creates a supremely devastating effect. Look closely at Winehouse’s face as the film rolls into its second hour, when the drugs began to take hold of her fragile psyche. The skin slackens and tightens around her bones. You can literally see the life leaving her eyes. Kapadia has managed to recreate a woman’s death in slow motion.

Amy-Winehouse

Before Kapadia gets to the unspeakable power of Winehouse’s spiral into addiction, he reminds the audience of why listeners fell in love with this brassy character in the first place. From her Cockney twang to her trailer-trash-chic wardrobe, Winehouse clearly took pleasure in bucking the expectations that mainstream society placed on her.

She gave smartass answers to insulting questions from the press, contemptuous of the cannibalistic paparazzi even before they swarmed her upon every departure from the house. Her generous wit was already evident in the knowing lyrics to her songs, but the woman’s self-taught smarts extended into her everyday interactions. Even as she embodied the archetype of tragedy, Winehouse was still, in many ways, a regular human being. She developed crushes on people who were bad for her, she geeked out about her favorite music to anyone who would listen, she panicked in the presence of her idols. The crucial difference, of course, is that Winehouse didn’t tremblingly approach Tony Bennett to ask for an autograph and then giggle her way back to her friends. She was in the studio, a record label breathing down her neck, trying to force herself to create art in front of someone whose respect she craved. And when she couldn’t, she’d collapse into a fit of self-loathing that knew only one cure.

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Walking out of this doomed character study, the prevailing emotional response is one of futility. Kapadia clearly designates points where a little intervention from a responsible party could’ve righted Winehouse’s course and averted her demise. It’s a cruel but necessary move; the audience knows that there’s nothing left to be done, that Winehouse is beyond saving, that they’re powerless. The realization that follows this knowledge offers redemption, not for the subject of this brutal film, but for the audience. It’s too late for Amy, but it might not be for us. Anyone struggling with her troubles, regrettably common demons, can be salvaged. There’s still time.

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Bonus Content: The Random Nerds’ Unofficial Soundtrack to ‘Amy’