Amy Winehouse was an incredible talent. Her performances always sounded effortless, her talent obvious to all. But the bold songs that she wrote and her strong musical ability were a front for a vulnerable woman, one who was exploited by her managers and her father for money, as is shown in the documentary Amy.
Everyone knows about Winehouses’s struggles with alcohol and drugs. What we haven’t seen is what came before it. The images of her youth, of who she was before her stardom set in and the cameras turned against her. In Amy, we get to see a version of Winehouse that you probably haven’t seen before: someone bright-eyed and innocent, passionate about music to the extent that she describes it as meaning more to her than life itself.
Amy shows us this footage, following Winehouse’s career trajectory from a sixteen-year-old getting started to the exhausted, lost woman that she becomes who seeks solace in alcohol and drugs. Amy invites us to leave our preconceptions of the singer at the door, showing us what is so often missed out in celebrity coverage: what goes on behind the scenes, and in this case, what is and was the manipulation of a talented but unwell woman.
As Amy’s life becomes more and more blurred by drugs and alcohol, the media circus grows, with Amy using this real and painful footage — many paparazzi photos, for example — to ground voice-over interviews from Amy’s friends, family and co-workers, challenging our perception of such images and what we thought we knew about the troubled singer.
Winehouse’s father has had issues with the film, but only because of how he comes off: as a money-obsessed, weak-willed man who pushed his daughter out on tour when she could clearly barely cope to be at home, let alone out on the road in front of thousands of people, all of whom wanted something from her, yet mocked her when she was unable to give it to them. Videos of Winehouse on tour, struggling to stand because of substance abuse, are heartbreakingly juxtaposed against memories told by her oldest friends- mostly woman, unlike many of the other players in this story — many of whom struggled with how to help her, but in the end were powerless against the men in suits that surrounded Winehouse as she became more and more famous, all of whom wanted a piece of either her talent or her profitability.
Amy doesn’t try to tell us what to think. It doesn’t accuse people — not Amy herself, nor the people around her — but instead records their stories. The film interviews Amy’s ex-husband — the man who introduced her to drugs and was the basis for some of her best and most heartbreaking songs — her father, her mother and the record execs, and lets their statements — their excuses, in many cases, for pushing such a fragile woman into the limelight, and for not fighting harder for her health and well-being — wrestle for credibility against the real-life footage of Winehouse collected over her lifetime. Just like the best documentaries, Amy lets the facts speak for themselves, and in this case showcases a tragic, heartbreaking demise. Of a musician, yes, but more than that, of a woman who just wanted to play music.
Amy didn’t want to be famous; she didn’t even necessarily want a career as any kind of singer. She just wanted to make good music, and to release the demons — the depression, the pain, the feelings that allowed her to connect with so many listeners — that were clawing at her insides.
Amy explores those desires and the slow, painful destruction of them, as well as the toll that substance abuse takes on people and how the media exacerbates that. Amy will make you reconsider fame, addiction, and, most of all, Amy Winehouse herself.
Directed by Asif Kapadia and featuring unseen archival footage and unheard tracks, Amy is playing in select theaters now. Buy tickets here.