Enormous talent throbbing at the center of a sad, somewhat banal story – that is the basis of Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy,” which captures the art and short life of Amy Winehouse. Winehouse died in 2011 when she was 27, the same mythic age at which other gifted musicians reached their premature end.
I have little mastery of contemporary pop music; I know the names of major performers, but not their work. But I did know Winehouse’s music, maybe because I like jazz singers, which is what Winehouse preferred to call herself. Early in the film she mentions Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett as figures she admired and was influenced by, and toward the end we see her last recording, a duet with the 84-year-old Bennett, who compares her in the film to Billie Holiday (of whom Winehouse’s voice sometimes reminds me) and Ella Fitzgerald.
Seeing Winehouse and Bennett record their duet is one of the most poignant moments of “Amy,” since you can clearly feel Winehouse’s admiration for the older singer and her fear of not living up to his expectations (or her own; she was already in a fragile emotional state at that point). What makes the scene so moving is how Bennett supports Winehouse, who at one point was even ready to abandon the project altogether. He is warm and paternal toward her, in sharp contrast to the practical coldness of her biological father, who was among those who rushed to exploit her when she became a megastar.
When Winehouse and Bennett finally finish recording, the result is exquisite; if I am not mistaken, it is the only time in the film we hear Winehouse performing a standard (“Body and Soul”) and not one of her own songs – a fact that only underscores what a tremendous talent was lost when she died. Winehouse’s album “Back to Black” is excellent. Her performance with Bennett, however, shows us what we might have gained by hearing Winehouse’s take on the classics of American popular music. Winehouse had the distinctive ability (which Bennett also has) to turn her singing into a thought unfolding itself before us (during the recording scene, Winehouse says to Bennett that she can’t sing a song the same way twice; neither can he, Bennett says, and Amy Winehouse, with the typical charm that did not abandon her even as she neared her death, tells him that she learned this from him.)
Winehouse’s self-definition as a jazz singer points to one of the self-destructive components of her life as an artist. That was how she saw herself, but her audience apparently had a different idea, and Winehouse struggled with the gap between her self- perception and her public image. She says at some point in the movie that it is not right or natural for a jazz singer to play on an open stage before an audience of many thousands, rather than for a small group of listeners at an intimate club. In addition to being tormented by the paparazzi, who hounded her even when her life was falling apart, Winehouse was apparently well aware of the distortion inherent in being a superstar at an age when jazz had become the special province of the few.
Beyond documenting Winehouse’s art, “Amy” owes its power to its simplicity and directness (which come hand in hand with intelligence and integrity; the story could have been sensationalized, and it is not). This is a film that avoids coyness; you don’t need any when focusing on someone so talented. There is one device Kapadia uses, which is to have the words of Winehouse’s songs appear on the screen as she is singing, but the ploy is a good one, showing how much autobiographical punch Winehouse’s lyrics carried.
“Amy” does not offer a psychological explanation for what happened to the daughter of an East London Jewish couple who divorced when she was a child. Kapadia is smart and decent enough not to try and contain Winehouse’s biography within the cliché of self-destructive impulses, especially because the concept is just not broad enough to contain her life story. Winehouse suffered from depression and bulimia and was involved in a relationship with an abusive young man named Blake Fielder-Civil. Although one look at his pretty face might have told her that he was no good, she married him in 2007 and divorced him in 2009. Together they become addicted to alcohol and then hard drugs (he is in prison and is not interviewed in the movie). She may have been preparing for rehab when she died, although her chances of recovery were not promising (at one point in the film, she declares that life is boring without drugs; the official cause of her death was cardiac arrest due to alcohol poisoning).
“Amy” is made up of footage from Winehouse concerts and interviews showing her charm, humor and charisma. There are also interviews with two of her best childhood friends and with her fellow musicians, as well as many very touching scenes from home movies, in which we see Winehouse as a lively, mischievous child. Wisely, the film does not focus on her physical transformation: as her life veered off-track, the black makeup around her eyes thickened, and her hair grew to grotesque proportions, as though some alien being were hovering over, making her soar – but also weighing her down, causing her to crash.
Kapadia’s film is extremely moving, which is not always easy to achieve when you are telling the story of a superstar whose fate is both painful and infuriating. We see the concert in Belgrade in which Winehouse is forced to appear against her will; she comes onstage and refuses to sing in front of an increasingly angry audience, clearly showing that she has no idea where she is or what people want from her. It is a shocking moment. Also shocking is the scene in which her father shows up with a television crew at the Caribbean island where Winehouse is trying to get some privacy and rest after a rehabilitation attempt; but the most poignant sight is that of her tiny, wrapped body being carried out of the house where she died. It is also touching to see the mourners gathered outside the synagogue where the ceremony was held, many of them black people sporting white skullcaps.
Few documentaries get to be commercially distributed at Israeli theaters; they usually need a good reason to be shown. “Amy” has reason enough, and it is shown as a kind of farewell tribute to an artist who was with us for too brief a time. Her unique voice follows us as we exit the theater, slightly choked up. At some point, the simplicity and candor of the film make it a kind of requiem that does not ignore the dismal, even tawdry nature of the destiny it unfolds, but at the same time celebrates and mourns the gift around which this destiny emerged.