A lot of pop music stars have killed themselves with drinking and drugs. Many of them had prodigious talent and outsized personalities, and a few were even possessed with something like genius. But there was only one Amy Winehouse. The late English singer-songwriter, who died in 2011 and who is now the subject of a blinding, blistering, flash-of-lightning documentary simply called Amy, falls into a category of her own. She was a sort of revelation.
Even as a kid, growing up middle-class Jewish in North London, Amy had a startling voice and charisma to match, with big, expressive eyes and a waterfall of black hair. When she began working the clubs as a solo act, singing her original compositions and accompanying herself on guitar, her influences clearly showed. They were pure jazz: Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, and her special daddy, Tony Bennett. In an effort to go more mainstream she turned toward a slightly more commercial R&B/reggae hybrid later, but her vocal stylings — nearest approximation: Laura Nyro crossed with Beyoncé at her sultriest — never strayed far from gin-and-tonic-and-a-Kool. Island Records’ Nick Gatfield, one the film’s numerous talking heads, saw her as “old soul, young body.” At first, Amy preferred jazz clubs and small audiences, but eventually everyone wanted a piece of her. Her talent led to her downfall.
Winehouse’s confessional songs, light on clearly defined hooks but full of emotion, caught on big with European and American urbanites, and by the time she broke out as a full-fledged superstar — winning five Grammys in 2008 for her Back to Black album — her cult had grown to include every paparazzo in the developed world, much to her chagrin. Fame frightened her, and the white-hot glare of press and TV publicity pushed/pulled her into a classic web of interdependency: bulimia, antidepressants, crack, heroin, and her number-one favorite, the one that really killed her, alcohol. In the tradition of dissipated rock stars, her excesses became part of her act. The height of Amy’s career was simultaneously the depth of her despair. Rapper Yasiin Bey describes his longtime friend as “someone who’s trying to disappear.”
In the spirit of the modern pop biodoc, director Asif Kapadia (he made the thrilling auto racing profile Senna) assembles the flash points of Winehouse’s life and career from an avalanche of digital sources, a true iPhone vérité covering the minutiae of her emotional tribulations alongside fleeting moments of happiness. We can see that Winehouse had a wonderful sense of humor and very few star-trip delusions of grandeur. She wore her heart on her sleeve for everyone to see. Her life story might actually have been better organized as a dramatization, but then we’d miss her fizzy personality and pity the actress hired to impersonate her. She finally crashed out and made the 27 Club, alongside Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix. Pretty good company, and so is Amy.