Review: Amy, a documentary on the life of Amy Winehouse

Still from the film Amy

Amy Winehouse was a gifted singer and songwriter who became a punchline. Then she died and the jokes stopped. Amy is a powerful documentary that puts her life back into context. Regardless of whether or not you're familiar with Winehouse and her music, it is well worth your time.

She only made two albums. The first brought her critical acclaim and success at home in England. The second brought international stardom and massive hits, including a little ditty called "Rehab" ("They tried to make me go to rehab and I said, 'No, no, no.'").

That's when most of us got our first look at Winehouse, onstage in her beehive hairdo and trashy makeup. She looked disengaged, probably wasted, or about to get wasted, just as soon as she got the performance out of the way.

Her image as self-destructive pop star was bolstered by the tabloids, and then by late night talk show comedians that stopped using Keith Richards' name when they recycled old jokes about hard-living stoners and plugged in Amy Winehouse's name instead. In 2011 she died at age 27, joining Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain in "The 27 Club." Three years earlier, her former personal assistant told an interviewer that Winehouse feared that she might end up in the club.

British director Asif Kapadia ("Senna") goes back to the beginning and shows us the journey of Amy Winehouse. The documentary is remarkable for two reasons. First, the events are recent enough that there is video of almost everything. Remember how documentaries were made out of talking heads? Not here. In "Amy," you see her life unfolding, from the early days when she and her girlfriends recorded each other, to the latter days, when she and her handlers tried to get from point A to point B while photographers assaulted them with exploding white light.

I've always wondered who is interested in photos of celebrities shielding their eyes while trying to enter or exit buildings. Ethical considerations aside, what is there to see?

The second reason that "Amy" stands out is because Kapadia shows the words to the songs onscreen. Oh my god, what a difference that makes! You see young Winehouse, a nice young Jewish girl giggling and chattering with her friends, then you see the words to the poems (which became lyrics) she wrote about her life. Words that are true to who she is while showing a sophistication you wouldn't otherwise associate with the footage onscreen. Amazing.

How did this kid know about singers like Ronnie Spector, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan? How did someone her age become familiar enough with Marilyn Monroe's presidential performance of "Happy Birthday" to do her own knowing version? All you can do is watch and marvel.

Some members of Winehouse's family have denounced the film for its portrayal of Winehouse in the latter days of her life. They claim it focuses too much on the negative. Others have complained that the film doesn't include footage of some of Winehouse's worst behavior towards the end, including arrests for assault.

What I know is this: By the time the film nears the end, I appreciated and respected Amy Winehouse considerably more than I had before. Whatever the particulars of her final months, she was an enormously talented human being. More importantly, she was a nice young Jewish girl from London who was ill-equipped for fame. She even says so. Listen for yourself.


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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