Her girlish manner spoke to her origins —a suburban Jewish kid with a North London diction the equivalent to that of a Valley Girl. But when she sang, as someone says in the new documentary film “Amy,” out came “the stylings of a 65-year-old jazz singer who knows the ropes.”
Her lyrics and haunting voice spoke to the heartaches, pain and personal struggles of a woman many times her age. Her songs echoed all the greats from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf and Anita O’Day. How on earth did a kid from North London get infected with such troubled soulfulness?
That’s not, however, the issue at hand in Asif Kapadia’s documentary. Rather it’s how did someone as talented as Amy Winehouse implode right in front of everyone’s eyes?
Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27, a tragedy everyone saw coming but no one could figure out how to prevent.
In attempting to answer that question though, the filmmakers — a reunion of the team behind the award-winning Formula 1 documentary, “Senna,” director Kapadia, producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King — do partially answer that first question.
In her short 27 years, Winehouse endured enough psychological torment and self-destructiveness to form the narrative in her blues-jazzy songs. While much of this torment was self-inflicted, family, friends, minders and her life journey seemed grotesquely designed for a tragic outcome.
These include her father, Mitch Winehouse, who controls her estate; Nick Shymansky, her first manager and one-time close friend, whose personal footage of her display the young teen before the catastrophe of success; her equally addicted ex-husband, Blake Fielder; studio collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi; and, much more reluctantly, her two oldest friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert.
(Her dad has since put his distance between him and the final film.)
Winehouse is among the first deceased celebrities to have lived her life seemingly in front of cameras, mostly camcorders. So Kapadia is able to assemble a remarkable amount of still and motion pictures to document her life along with old interviews of Winehouse on television and radio.
There is even footage of her in a New York recording studio first trying out the song, “Back to Black,” that led the album that was to become an astonishing 20-million seller.
All this leads to an impressionistic audio-visual melange that treats its subject with a non-judgmental tenderness and empathy that is bracing in this era of social-media snarkiness and “gotcha” journalism.
For hers were a fragile body and soul. Before ”Back to Black,” she was already suffering from issues of self-worth, bulimia, manic depression and poor relationship choices while flirting with drug and alcohol abuse. A worse candidate for fame and fortune can hardly be imagined.
Her father left when she was young but even when he was around “he was never there,” she says. Then when she became famous he showed up with a camera crew for his own reality show as Amy’s father.
Her mother never disciplined her, leaving that to a nanny, who then died early leaving her bereft.
She got rid of childhood friend Nick Shymansky as her manager then hired a promoter, Raye Cosbert, to manage her. A promoter is never the best judge of when a client should not or even cannot perform.
She fell madly in love with Blake Fielder who, to put it kindly, seems like the wrong sort of fellow for her, an enabler who didn’t want to reduce his own drug intake for fear of losing his addict wife.
Yet through all this she forged a career as a jazz singer, one the great Tony Bennett championed by bringing her aboard to record together, a session also captured on film. (And her final recording session to boot.)
This disparity between the girlish, fun-loving youngster and the pursuer of hedonistic excess demonstrate a critical distrust of her own self worth. Whether she mocks it or sings about it, she was ever vulnerable to raging insecurities.
Yet everyone — her manager, bodyguard, family and friends — had agendas that did not include intervention. There was an actual intervention at one point when Universal made her sign a document that ruled no more records until she sobered up. By then it was too late.
A brief few weeks of sobriety would lead into another cycle of binging. For a body already suffering from the effects of bulimia, it was only a matter of time before it gave out.
Kapadia lets Amy herself speak through her lyrics, which appear on screen throughout the film. It’s a deep dive into intense personal relationships, a celebration of wit and fun and, yes, determined drug use:
“They tried to make me go to rehab
I said ‘no, no, no’”
Her songwriting no doubt was a catharsis. Exploring her own life, she dug deep and went naked. She denied nothing and confronted her demons. Piaf and Holiday managed this but with other people’s lyrics. Amy wrote the soundtrack for her own life and death. It’s awesome and pathetic in about equal measure.
What if she had a different upbringing? What if success had been more gradual? Could she have sustained that remarkable talent? Would the songwriting be the same?
Questions we’ll never know the answers to.
The film at times feels overstuffed. No doubt coming upon such extraordinary, unseen footage, Kapadia uses, it would seem, nearly everything: young Amy in car outings, shooting pool, hanging out in a record office or posing on London streets with buddies.
With such poor quality and not always informative footage, the film gets off to a sputtering start until Amy herself seizes control. Only when she is on camera, either performing her material or staring directly into the lens to deliver pithy remarks, does the full force of the charismatic, super talented entertainer hit you in the gut.
Her long dark face and loose, lanky body transform themselves as the movie progresses, Body piercing and more tattoos appear. The volcanic beehive black hair changes shape and tints. The face grows more haggard and makeup scarred. Then the eyes go dead. Bloat and misery distort her face.
“Amy” is a two-hour death scene. But it’s also riveting: When she stands before a mike or camera with all her senses alive she transforms into that 65-year-old jazz singer with deep memories. She’s the real deal unlike so many of our superficial, tricked-out performers of today.
“Amy” is an intimate portrait of the overpowering forces that can destroy a person by conspiring with her own vulnerabilities. What’s unusual is that this person was able to give an accurate even soulful account of her battles direct from the frontline of mental chaos.
Opens: July 3 L.A., New York; July 10 nationwide (A24)
Production companies: Krishwerkz Entertainment, Playmaker Films, Universal Music
Director: Asif Kapadia
Producer: James Gay-Rees
Archive Producer: Paul Bell
Music: Antonio Pinto
Editor: Chris King
R rating, 128 minutes