It’s been less than 5 years since singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse died from alcohol intoxication and given the celebrity surrounding her, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s taken this long for a definitive documentary about her life to reach cinemas. The time has been well spent however, as BAFTA-winning director Asif Kapadia brings the skill he employed on Senna to the tragic story of one of the most important musicians of a generation.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Amy is a tale of sex, drugs and jazz but it’s not. It’s simply a story about a young girl with an incredible talent who was unable to deal with the pressures of fame. The 90-minute long documentary uses previously unseen archive footage and voice over accounts from family, friends and collaborators to tell the singer’s story, from her very first record deal to her fifth Grammy award (she won her sixth posthumous). The amount of research which has obviously gone into making the film is astounding and it succeeds in giving a voice to an artist who was celebrated and judged in equal measure.
Seeing a young Amy Winehouse in a car with her friends on the way to a recording studio, audiences hear her friend and former Manager, Nick Shymansky explain how she was discovered at the age of 16. Watching her early performances and listening to her talk about music, it’s clear why everyone was so keen to sign Amy. Even then her talent was undeniable and everyone wanted a piece of it. As the documentary goes on we see her release her debut album, Frank (2003), which was hailed for its unique sound and won her the Ivor Novello Award, but the first cracks are already starting to show.
We hear in her own words the effect her Dad leaving her Mum had on Amy and with the freedom her career brought, her drinking went from heavy to worryingly so. It was around this time that she met Blake Fielder-Civil with whom she would have a turbulent relationship for many years. Even then, before she was truly famous, her friends were concerned about her. They tried to talk her into going to rehab but she refused. Little did they know then that the worst was yet to come.
With the release of Back To Black (2006), Amy’s fame skyrocketed and after listening her previously talk about how she couldn’t handle being famous (“I’d probably go mad”), it’s really brought home what this means for the star. Accounts from collaborators such as Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi speak equally to her inspirational talent and worrying habits and the more her album succeeds, the more she seems to dissolve behind the screaming fans and paparazzi cameras.
So many times Amy’s story appears to be looking up; so much so that you’re almost hoping for a different ending to the one you know is coming. After the 2008 Grammy nominations she got clean on the orders of the head of Universal UK and as her hero, Tony Bennet announced Rehab as Record of the Year a look of genuine surprised delight crossed her face. Her friends and family cheered around her, but even then she wasn’t completely happy. Her friend Juliette Ashby reveals in the film: “I said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening… I am so proud of you.’ She went, ‘Jules, this is so boring without drugs.’”
After her divorce in 2009 she finally stopped taking heroin and crack but was still abusing alcohol, which led to her lapsing into a coma in May 2010. Even recording a duet with Tony Bennet the following year wasn’t enough to keep her going and she had a disastrous gig in Belgrade where she wandered around the stage hugging her bandmates and looking vacant. The rest of the tour was cancelled and not long after she called her friend Jules to make amends and apparently seemed like the old Amy again. On 23rd July 2011 she was found dead in her Camden home by her bodyguard with an alcohol level of 416mg per 100ml of blood - 350mg would have been a fatal dose. She was 27 years old.
Asif Kapadia has done everything in his power to portray Amy’s story in an accurate and unbiased way, laying out the facts using her own words and those of her friends and family without comment or accusation. There are a couple of conflicting accounts in the documentary but these a presented side by side without favouritism, leaving the audience to make of them what they will. Despite the objections of the Winehouse family (especially Mitch Winehouse), Amy gives what feels like a clear and honest account of the musician’s life and while some individuals come off better than others, this is obviously not the point of this film.
The general consensus put forward by the media at the time was that despite her talent Amy Winehouse had brought her downfall on herself, throwing her life away for drugs and alcohol. Amy doesn’t try to hide the choices the singer made, but it does try and explain them by giving context to her life. While the outside world thought she was riding high on the success of Back To Black, the documentary shows how the star was crumbling under the pressures of fame and struggling to deal with a lifelong battle with bulimia and alcohol abuse.
It goes without saying that this is a must-see for Amy Winehouse fans but even if you don’t know her story, you’ll be fascinated by this insightful look into an extraordinary but troubled life. Like witnessing a train wreck, it’s hard to look away as you watch her careen towards destruction, but this is not a savage or distasteful account of her life. Instead, Amy is a fitting tribute to someone whose story should have only ever been about music, but was instead blighted by tragedy. Her keyboard player, Sam Beste puts it best in the film: “She had one of the most pure relationships to music, such an emotional relationship. She needed music as if it were a person and she would die for it.”