Life teaches you how to live if you can live long enough. – Tony Bennett
English songbird Amy Winehouse died tragically at age 28. The Grammy award-winning soul singer was found dead in her London flat, succumbing to years of alcohol and drug abuse. Winehouse was also battling bulimia, an eating disorder, at the time, which had plagued her since her teen years, after the break up of her parent’s marriage. Winehouse, whose signature beehive, raspy voice and deer-in-headlights gaze was at first endearing, subsequently becoming tabloid fodder. Success at a young age cast a young woman not quite ready for primetime into the glaring limelight of music superstardom.
In Amy, Asif Kapadia shares the story of a good girl gone bad in a cinematic style that is marked by haunting performances and candid interviews with people closest to the troubled singer. The footage is intercut with poetry from Winehouse’s life that would eventually become lyrics to her enviable song catalog. Kapadia manages to dodge the typical “rise and fall” of a tortured singer storyline with intimate, thoughtful and engaging storytelling that challenges the public perception of who Amy Winehouse was and the root of her unhappiness.
It becomes abundantly clear from the beginning of the documentary that the singer with the throaty delivery and bright eyes faced an uphill battle against tragedy from childhood. Winehouse’s complicated family life resulted in confusion and pain. In fact Kapadia does an excellent job of turning the idea of her death at 28 as a tragedy into a triumph once viewers are taken behind the scenes of a troublesome family life and poisonous hanger-ons. Winehouse’s professional accomplishments are truly amazing when viewers begin to understand the issues she faced — issues that many people face in society, without a camera and microphone shoved in their face.
Kapadia, who conducted scores of interviews for this documentary, shows viewers the scant amount of parental guidance that Winehouse received, intervention or help when she most needed it – at every stage of life. Many often worry about little boys without father figures as role models in their homes. Amy is a tale of what can happen to little girls without strong father figures in their lives and the tragedy that can occur when that little girl grows into a woman choosing romantic partners, like Blake Felder-Civil. Felder-Civil’s role in pulling the chanteuse further into an abyss marked by rampant drug abuse, alcoholism and dangerous celebrity has been well documented. We hear Felder-Civil’s perspective about the relationship in his words, revealing chilling information about the troubled duo.
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary is that Winehouse seemed to always be in front of the camera, even as a child. The amount of home footage of the singer from her childhood and teen years is startling. It’s as if she was being primed for stardom from the day she was born. To learn that the starlet loathed being photographed and videotaped yet and still was photographed and videotaped constantly by the paparazzi and some family members showcases the irony of the circumstances surrounding her life. Winehouse says to an interviewer, ‘I’m not a girl trying to be a star, I’m just a girl that sings.”
Winehouse’s rare voice and talent would make her a star. It would also lead her on the path to being more than just a girl that sings — a path filled with fame and notoriety she couldn’t figure out how to manage. Kapadia takes viewers into the life of Winehouse, which includes childhood friends, one of whom became her manager at one point (Nick Shymansky), celebrity friends like Mos Def and Mark Ronson, her inner and outer circle, and even her drug counselor. Shymansky and Winehouse’s closest friends tried to help the struggling chanteuse to no avail.
Winehouse’s favorite idol and eventual collaborator was legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett. Bennett clearly understood who Winehouse was and the importance of her voice in the category of jazz singers, which is where she was headed. While the documentary shows us the worst of Winehouse’s life, which was marked by pain and loneliness, it reminds us of Winehouse’s vocal prowess and infinite talent as a songwriter and musician. In a brilliant scene of a legendary singer who could respond in a number of ways, Bennett takes on the role of mentor and coaches Winehouse through a session that is poignant, funny and revealing.
Bennett sums up Winehouse’s short life in one sentence. “Life teaches you how to live if you can live long enough,” says the 87-year-old crooner. Unfortunately, Winehouse didn’t live long enough to learn that life lesson.
‘Amy’ opens nationwide in theaters July 10, 2015. Check local theaters for show times.