There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and death of troubled superstar singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, where she makes everyone fall in love with her. The setting was the 2008 Grammys, and Winehouse was nominated for a boatload of awards in the wake of her smash second album, Back to Black, and the global phenomenon of lead single “Rehab.” Winehouse was not at the Staples Center that night; she performed and watched the ceremony via satellite from London. Standing on the stage with her band, she seemed only barely interested in the pomp and circumstance of the affair that garnered her six awards and cemented her as a global phenomenon. But then Tony Bennett walks onto the stage half a world away, and her eyes light up. Her face softens and she’s like a kid again watching her idol read out her name as the winner for record of the year. She doesn’t care that she won some pointless award. She cares that Tony Bennett just said her name out loud. Later on, she would remark that the night “is so boring without drugs.” But for that one moment, she was human again.
Humanity is not high on the list of words most people probably think of when looking back at Amy Winehouse. She had the sort of whirlwind career that dashed from young breakout to paparazzi-dogged superstar to tabloid drug abuser to tragic cautionary tale/martyr, that only the most devoted fans seemed to acknowledge her existence as an actual person with thoughts and feelings. As anyone would expect, exploring the woman behind the music is the goal, and Kapadia has a wealth of archival footage to make his case. It seems like cameras have been rolling for the majority of her life, from her early years as a cherub-faced teenager to the diva who graced magazine covers in the last moments of her life. Judicious editing and connective interviews (thankfully not given the talking head treatment) give Amy a sense of purpose; it feels as though Kapadia has been personally following her with his own camera the whole time.
To be fair, the film takes a bit of time to get moving. Its opening moments are relatively straightforward, the story of a mischievous North London teenager with a dynamic voice and a passion for jazz is not the most groundbreaking stuff for a music documentary, but it does provide the foundation that is to be paid off in the future. It is very much a tale of two lives, with the release of Back to Black as the flashpoint. Suddenly, Winehouse is no longer just a jazz singer from London. She’s The Next Big Thing, a bona fide star with money rolling in faster than anyone could imagine, and the piranhas are circling.
It is here that the villains of the piece begin to assert themselves in the form of her absentee-cum-opportunistic-hanger-on father and drug addicted husband who brought her down the road toward crack cocaine and heroin, but in many ways, it is the psychotically aggressive paparazzi who are the greatest scoundrels, unfailingly hounding her every move, giving her no opportunity for peace or quiet, no solace from the mounting pressure of her stardom. And of course, the more she self-destructs, the more bloodthirsty the cameras become (which is especially chilling, considering the footage Kapadia is using here must be coming directly from the paparazzi themselves), and the more disgustingly disapproving the media’s coverage turns. It is an endless feedback loop, the consequence of which is nothing less than a human life.
As all of this builds, as the world closes in around her, Amy begins to take on the aspects of a horror film. The explosions of flashbulbs, the unholy din of what feels like billions of camera shutters hounding her every move, that mentality to just get the shot and damn the consequences is sickening to behold. No one should have to live a life like that, and no one has managed to convey the immediacy of personal violation that they represent like Kapadia does in Amy’s final hour. Everything that happens to her once superstardom takes its hold is brutal and heartrending, especially as Winehouse tries to fight back and better herself, only to have something else go wrong with a relapse following hard upon. The final forty minutes is a protracted death march, and anyone who experiences it with dry eyes is a hearty person indeed.
As Amy Winehouse stumbled further and further toward oblivion, the insensitivity of pop culture at large was galling. Cries for help were met with derision, hypocritical moralizing and callous joking (as if anyone needed further reasoning to dislike Jay Leno, Kapardia shrewdly includes footage of her playing on his show on her way up only to return to him making heartless jokes about her drug abuse on her way down). The paparazzi never abated, still there even as her sheet-covered dead body is carried from her apartment. She was always an object to them, a means to an end whether for money or ratings or column inches. It is an ugly business and a cruel one, one predicated on dehumanizing its subjects, and Amy is unflinching in its censure of the entire enterprise. The strength and the power of this documentary lies in its unerring and overwhelming empathy; it does not matter what one’s opinions of Amy Winehouse as an artist or a pop culture icon. Beneath the tattoos and the drugs and the spiraling addictions, she was just a girl who liked jazz and singing and Tony Bennett. But more than anything else, she was a human being, and though drugs and alcohol and the pressure of a life in the harshest of spotlights took her far too early in her life, Asif Kapadia has found in her story a stirring and harrowingly emotional tribute to humanity. It is tough to ask for more.