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‘Amy’: Winehouse story sets a new bar for 21st-century music documentaries

via Amy Winehouse on Facebook

I spent much of of Amy on the edge of my seat, and it took me a while afterwards to figure out exactly why. After all, the story’s tragic ending is all too well-known—and director Asif Kapadia wisely doesn’t try to insert any artificial suspense. Ultimately, this film’s endless fascination comes from nothing less than the mystery of the human condition. How can such a great talent, and such a personally beloved woman, have lived and died under such a dark cloud?

Not that Winehouse’s death itself was any mystery—or, sadly, much of a surprise. If anything, Amy leaves us impressed that the singer-songwriter managed to make it as long as she did, given the hornet’s nest of substance-abuse, mental health, and relationship issues that swarmed about her from an early age.

She did crack, heroin, weed, and booze—sometimes all in one night. The love of her life was a co-dependent enabler. Her unstable family situation left her adrift, and her struggles with depression and eating disorders were apparent from her early teens. She was in no way prepared to deal with the vast global success of her album Back to Black, and she knew it. Music was her savior—until it became an albatross around her neck.

Amy succeeds—and does so thrillingly—because of Kapadia’s discipline and laser-like focus on his eponymous subject. Maybe his smartest choice, and one that’s surprisingly rare in documentaries like this, is to keep his latter-day informants offscreen. We hear the present-day voices of Winehouse’s family and friends, but there are no cutaways to headshots of the speakers. The result feels less like a traditional documentary than a life relived in a state that’s dream-like—which is to say, nightmarish.

Given that the film’s critical events unfolded in about the first decade of this century, Amy also feels like an early look at what documentarians of our present times will have to work with. The grainy high-speed film stock of Don’t Look Back is replaced with blurry, pixellated video from cell phones and digital cameras—back when you couldn’t pull out a smartphone and capture a billboard-worthy panorama. The result is at once bracingly intimate and poignantly distant; at many of these moments, we’re almost relieved that we can’t see more clearly.

Like the story of Winehouse’s addiction struggles, Amy‘s evisceration of celebrity culture feels heartbreakingly compelling despite how well-trod its ground is. Here too, Kapadia’s wise instinct is to show rather than tell. Instead of enlisting “expert” commentators, Kapadia punches us in the gut by cutting between excruciating evidence of Winehouse’s drug-ravaged state and footage of comics—up to and including then-Tonight-Show host Jay Leno—tossing off lazy gags at her expense. Even when Winehouse’s Grammy nominations are announced, emcee George Lopez cracks, “Can someone wake her up around 6:00 this afternoon and tell her?”

The night of Winehouse’s Grammy win for “Rehab,” an award she accepted remotely from London, becomes the heart of the film—enormously moving in unexpected ways. Winehouse was sober for the occasion, and watching her riveted with suspense even as she offers quips about the other nominees, we feel like those close to her must have felt: like we have an old friend back, someone who’s been gone for a long time. She graciously thanks her parents (including her slimy father, who unsurprisingly disapproves of Kapadia’s finished film) and her imprisoned husband…but then, a close friend tells us, in the midst of all the celebrations, Winehouse confessed, “This is so boring without drugs.”

The most immediate reference point for viewers of Amy will be the recent Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, but though that film’s also very good in its way, it’s nowhere near as compelling as Amy. Part of that is due to director Brett Morgen’s approach, more conservative than that of Kapadia; and part of it is due to the fact that unlike Winehouse, Cobain fairly successfully kept his guard up until the end.

The documentary that Amy most reminded me of, though, isn’t about music at all: it’s The Bridge, Eric Steel’s 2006 film about people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. In most cases, they die—and Steel has harrowing interviews with loved ones who, in some cases, had resigned themselves to the knowledge that their friends’ suicides were a matter of when, not if. Alongside those stories, Steel finds survivors who confess that the moment their feet left the bridge, they regretted their decision to jump and wished fervently to live.

As we watch Winehouse’s body carried from her apartment on a stretcher, our hearts ache not because we wish we know what she was thinking when she drank herself to death, but because we know all too well what she was thinking. As her friend Mos Def says he thought to himself in Winehouse’s final months, “This is someone trying to disappear.”