There she is! Round-cheeked, frizzy-haired, slightly buck-toothed, lollipop dangling from pouty lips, going slightly cross-eyed on the high notes—goofiness always clung to her, even when she embraced high vamp. She’s singing “Happy Birthday” to one of her childhood besties, not giving a damn, but, also, giving it her all. Half-ham, half-Marilyn, all heart.
Sometimes we see greatness when we look back at the youthful antics of those who grow up to be stars because of the pleasing, quasi-mystical appeal of the genius myth—the sense that destiny grabs some people by the vocal cords and doesn’t loosen its grip until they’re bathed in a thousand spotlights. (Just look at a toddling Justin Bieber drumming! That boy is bound for … something.) And sometimes, a piece of juvenilia seems less like retrospective wishful thinking and more like evidence of an inner golden nugget. It’s that enduring variety of talent that’s on display here with Amy Winehouse—even if it lasted for far too short a time.
The new documentary Amy, which opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, and later this month nationwide, tracks the evolution of this happy, hammy teenager into the tragic train-wreck who Winehouse became in her twenties. Amy is directed by Asif Kapadia, known for his award-winning 2010 documentary Senna, which told the story of the life of the Brazilian Formula One star Ayrton Senna—a spectacularly skilled and motivated driver who died in a freak crash at the age of 34. You might think that Kapadia has an affinity for those who—literally or otherwise—drove themselves off the rails, but the project the director sets out for himself in Amy is different from that of Senna, which felt (at least to the non-Brazilian, non–Formula One fans in the audience) somewhat revelatory. The aim of Amy is more challenging: How do you inject surprise into a story that already feels over-exposed? And can you tell the story of a tabloid sensation—albeit a supremely talented one—without involving the scuzzy kind of voyeurism that usually defines such figures?
I remember that scuzzy scenery all too well. From 2007 to 2008, I was living in London, taking the train to and from Kings Cross Station every weekend. You could hardly make it past the turnstiles before brightly smocked paper-pushers flashed freebie newspapers in your face and forced you to take a copy.
She was everywhere, her ups and—more often—her downs a constant parade across the pages of these rags: Amy looking gaunt as a strung-out skeleton, Amy in bloody ballet flats, Amy clinging to her shadowy hipster boyfriend (and then husband), Blake Fielder-Civil. My dad saw her once in the flesh, tucking into fish and chips at a Marylebone High Street joint, and it was the hair that caught his eye—that epic up-do (New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones once deemed her “the Marge Simpson of junkie retro soul”) that seemed an awful lot to load onto such a waifish frame.
Kapadia transcends the familiarity of these images by juxtaposing them against archival footage of Winehouse and pairing them with contemporary interviews with the people who surrounded her those early years: her friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert (the “Happy Birthday” audience); her first manager, Nick Shymansky; her father Mitchel Winehouse; her first producer, Salaam Remi; and Fielder-Civil, who she divorced two years before her death in 2011 from alcohol poisoning. This juxtaposition gives the compilation of tabloid pics—and the film overall—a sleek sheen. Kapadia has described, in the past, his aversion to the talking-head mode of documentary-making, and here, as in Senna, he never trains his camera directly on the people he interviews. There’s no cheesy, VH1-ish “Behind the Music,” authority among the speakers. Their bodiless voice-overs have the feel of confession as much as explication. If they did appear on camera, you get the feeling they would be averting their eyes.
Kapadia also makes the story feel fresh by making ample use of sweeping helicopter shots of London. The film, Kapadia has said, is very much “about London.” In one particularly innovative scene, we hover over the Thames and then rise up over Westminster while a young, unpolished Amy (she’d never really shed her north London stroppy sass) tells a Dutch radio interviewer that she hated the pre-recorded horns that were added to one of her tracks. (She was a purist for live performance.) The Dutchman, taken aback at this forthright criticism of her colleague, pauses, and in that space between her candid disparagement and his stilted response, you glean the precariousness of her state: simultaneously soaring above it all on the adrenaline of newfound success and entirely, utterly unsure.
The heroes of Amy are the friends who stood by her to the end, while telling her she was someone they no longer liked, and figures like Russell Brand and Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), who recognized her genius, but also recognized she needed help. (“They have about them the air of elsewhere,” Brand once wrote of addicts generally and Winehouse specifically, “that they're looking through you to somewhere else they'd rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.”) And then there are the bodyguards, specifically Andrew Morris, a giant teddy bear of a bulwark, who fulfilled the very important task of protecting her from the critics and the cameras but also from herself. “She needed someone to say no,” he says an hour-plus into the film, and it feels true, but also too late.
If there are villains in the film they are Fielder-Civil and Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father. But both men come across as layered, bound to her by love but also complicit in some of her self-destruction. Fielder-Civil’s velvety baritone echoes the dedications that Amy made to him; the two seemed truly, madly, deeply in love. But he was also responsible for introducing her to crack and heroin. “I liked to sabotage myself,” he says in the film, “and I think she liked to sabotage herself as well.” The outline of his actions leaves an even nastier impression: He left Winehouse to go back to his girlfriend in 2005, then rejoined her when she was on the up and up. (Much of Back to Black, her mega-successful, Grammy-grabbing album, was written in response to this initial break-up and the state in which it left her.) In 2008, Fielder-Civil went to prison for assault and “perverting the cause of justice,” and in 2009, they divorced. In one of the last scenes in which he appears in the film, he brags about his gym-going habits then asks the camera point-blank, “What the fuck am I doing wasting my time with her?”
The portrait of Mitch Winehouse is similarly complex. Winehouse, by all accounts, adored her father. See her, in this Rolling Stone profile from 2007, meticulously preparing a turkey-and-cucumber sandwich for her father, then dutifully splitting her plate with Fielder-Civil—tending to one man then another. And, as a friend in the film relates, “She worshipped the ground he walked on.” But Mitch had a mixed influence on his daughter. The film doesn’t shy away from pinning some of the blame for her emotional distress on the fact that he left the family when Amy was nine. It also makes much of the fact that Mitch apparently told Amy she didn’t need to go to rehab in 2005, when some of her friends and her producer saw an opportunity to intervene. (The moment was immortalized in the lyrics of “Rehab”: “I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine.”) Mitch, who initially gave his blessing to the film, has since distanced himself from it, claiming Kapadia edited out the crucial last clause of his assessment: “She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time.”
But ultimately, the film is less interested in condemning either of these two men than in pointing out the ways in which the perpetrators of her decline are many: the editors who pushed reporters to obsess over her, the paparazzi who camped out at her Camden digs, the subway-riders who fueled it all by accepting free papers for the sake of a few minutes of idle entertainment. This is a theme that Kapadia builds over the course of the film: Winehouse had demons, but by pointing a thousand lenses at her we closed off every escape from them. In one of the first scenes in which she faces the paparazzi throngs, the volume from a thousand camera shutters escalates to a thunderous roar, the flashes become so bright they seem capable of inflicting retinal damage. It’s a sensory assault on the viewer, just as it must have been a sensory, emotional, and physical assault on Winehouse.
Toward the end of the film Tony Bennett delivers a fitting epitaph for Winehouse and this unpredictably graceful film (given its sometimes ugly material): “Life teaches you how to live it,” he says, “if you can live long enough.” Watching him with Winehouse—they filmed the 2011 sessions for the recording of their duet “Body and Soul”—Winehouse is a nervous acolyte, fidgeting in front of her idol. She seems eager to please and ready to learn. It’s too, too tragic that she never got the chance.