AMY. With Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, and Mitch Winehouse; Directed by Asif Kapadia; Rated R for language and drug material; 128 minutes.
There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through Asif Kapadia’s staggering documentary AMY that is simultaneously beautiful and tragic. It was during the Grammys in 2008, for which the then-24-year-old jazz phenom won five awards for her album “Back to Black.” Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole were presenting the award for Record of the Year, with Winehouse beamed in by satellite from London, where she had just gotten clean-and-sober in a nearby rehab center. Kapadia, who expertly told the fascinating story of F-1 racing legend Ayrton Senna in 2010’s “Senna,” presents the moment by intercutting the awards broadcast from Los Angeles with the live feed from the club in London from which Winehouse would perform two songs. When Bennett announced Winehouse as the winner, the look on the young, overwhelmed singer’s face is inspiring and rewarding, albeit ultimately heartbreaking. Even though we know where her story will end–with her death from alcohol poisoning in July of 2011–we wish against all reality that it could continue on with her conquering adversity and letting her amazing talent shine on and renew into her golden years. Sadly, moments later, a friend relates that Winehouse viewed this pinnacle of success as “boring without drugs.” And so it goes.
In the film, Bennett, who recorded the standard “Body and Soul” with Winehouse for his hit 2011 album “Duets II,” holds Winehouse in the same esteem as jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Hearing the singer belt out song after song–most of which she wrote herself–this assertion is very easy to accept. At the beginning of the film, Kapadia introduces us to Winehouse with a recording of her singing “Happy Birthday” from a friend’s 14th birthday party, and from that instant, we are captivated. Initially, this is because the confident and nuanced voice of a performer four times her age comes out of her, but gradually, Kapadia gives us plenty of other reasons to love her.
Thanks to Kapadia’s access to hundreds of hours of interviews and the ever-present home video cameras, Winehouse’s take-no-shit attitude, passion for her craft, and wonderful sense of humor shine through, as does her inability to keep it together when her star reaches its zenith. While no writer is credited, Kapadia is also responsible for telling Amy’s story in all its exquisite irony. By making us so fully invest in a character we know is doomed from frame-one, he proves not only his sensitivity and intelligence, but his incredible skill as a storyteller.•••
Robert Newton is a veteran film critic, novelty recording artist, and Creative Director of the Cape Ann Cinema & Stage in historic Gloucester, Mass.