Amy Winehouse biopic paints a sympathetic portrait of the tragic singer’s short life

Amy Winehouse biopic paints a sympathetic portrait of the tragic singer’s short life

4 stars

When they asked Amy Winehouse to go to rehab, she famously replied, "No, no, no." We all know how that refusal tragically ended, and we've all heard the jokes about it. In Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking new documentary, Amy, it's revealed that the talented singer-songwriter really did try. But in 2011, at the age of 27, the singer died of alcohol poisoning in her London home while watching YouTube videos of herself.

Winehouse was dealt a bad hand since birth, but she made the best of it, and she propelled herself to international superstardom. Some folks just aren't built for the spotlight, though, and for Winehouse, fame drove her deeper into addiction. It didn't help that her father, Mitch Winehouse, was a vile conductor of the gravy train. He pushed her to perform while failing to recognize her substance-abuse issues.

Through a wealth of archival images and footage, Kapadia (who previously directed the award-winning Senna, another study of a talented but tragic figure) takes us through the rise and fall of Winehouse. He digs deeper than the news specials you've seen, and he looks past the popular conceptions about the singer to reveal a much more profound tragedy. You've probably seen the videos of her drunk onstage and lashing out at paparazzi, and you've surely viewed those frightening photos of her at her most emaciated (she suffered from bulimia beginning in her teenage years). The public perception of Winehouse was that she was a wild, weak-willed, self-destructive woman. All of that changes after watching Amy.

Kapadia's intimate documentary is like watching somebody gradually disappear over the course of two hours. Winehouse's very public addiction made her a tabloid obsession and an international punchline, and the movie takes viewers through all of that and reveals – warts and all – the toll that public scrutiny took on her.

The sheer amount of home-video footage Kapadia uses is staggering, and he's able to reveal that, even as a teen exploring her talent for jazz singing, Winehouse was a witty, charismatic rebel. It also delves into the darker side of her upbringing – abandonment by her father when she was 9 years old, a mother completely aloof to her bulimia and depression. Her mother, disinterested in trying to control young Winehouse, eventually handed the girl over to her grandma. We even see footage of Winehouse as a young child telling her mother, "You're not strong enough, mum."

Her rise happened fast – she signed a contract and released her first album at 20 years old in 2003. Back to Black, her breakthrough album, came just three years later and made her a star. The album won five Grammy awards and Winehouse toured the hell out of it. The film contends that fame never interested her, though, as evidenced by her completely unpretentious interviews and unyielding allegiance to her North London roots.

Winehouse was complicit in her own demise, of course, and the film doesn't sugarcoat that. Her parents, the media, her husband Blake Fielder-Civil (who introduced her to hard drugs) and her inner demons are also complicit, though. No one, except for some close childhood friends and her bodyguard, really tried to stop her or tell her that her habits were going to drive her to her grave. One of her dear friends, Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def), offers a deeply thoughtful view of Winehouse and her demons, which he witnessed firsthand.

In perhaps the film's most heartbreaking moment, we see Winehouse's reaction to winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2008. She was sober at the time. Amid the revelry, she pulled one of her close friends aside and said, "This is boring without drugs."

Even at the top of the music world, she couldn't escape those demons.

We all know how the story ends. Even after spending two very intimate hours in the theater with Winehouse, the footage of her being carried out of her Camden home in a body bag is shocking and heart-rending. Amy isn't a completely downbeat film, though. It's also a celebration of the artist's music, humor and gigantic heart.

Rest in power, Miss Winehouse.

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