The artistic life and awful death of Amy Winehouse at age 27 has been so exhaustively chronicled that we think we know everything about her. Think again. What makes Asif Kapadia’s documentary a devastating don’t-miss dazzler — like the lady herself — is the way he lays out her story without editorializing. Kapadia shows us the transformation of this mischief-loving Jewish girl from North London into a peerless interpreter of jazz and soul, ready to take her place with such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Tony Bennett.
No bogus moralizing or re-enactments here: Kapadia goes to the source. Winehouse, who died of alcohol and fame poisoning in 2011, is of a generation that casually records everyday details, mundane and mesmerizing. There are photos and personal videos shot by family, friends, loyal manager Nick Shymansky, and BFFs Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, that editor Chris King deftly weaves in to the narrative. Amy’s youth, like her talent, explodes off the screen. That’s what makes her public decline, brutally recorded by the media, so gut-wrenching. Kapadia is rightfully hard on Amy’s dad, Mitch Winehouse, for pushing his daughter to work when she was already way past her limit. He’s satisfyingly harder on her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced Amy to crack cocaine and heroin and exploited her shamelessly.
Credit Kapadia, though, for not overplaying the victim card. This fragile moth’s attraction to the flame is readily apparent. And you can hear it in her music. Kapadia wisely uses Amy’s songs, often with lyrics spelled out on screen, to trace her story — from a teenager’s rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung to Gilbert and her hits (“Rehab,” “Love is a Losing Game”) to her concert in Belgrade, a month before she died, when she went on stage drunk and never sang a note. That last section of the movie, with Amy wasted by alcohol, drugs and eating disorders, is a gruesome horrorshow. But you don’t turn away, because the film has made Amy so touchingly, recognizably human. It’s her words, her music, her voicemails, her home videos, her friends, her family, her tormentors, and her timeless incandescence. Look, listen and weep.