When Amy Winehouse passed away, the cruel and obvious joke of people reciting, “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said no, no, no” was repeated on end. She even fit into the superstition of The 27 Club, young artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain who all died far too early in their prime. These labels put her into easy boxes, and her music and her personality was never easy to classify.
Director Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy” highlights the personality and the intimacy in her life’s choices, not strictly the talent or the hardships or the musical quality. As in his breakthrough documentary “Senna,” Kapadia employs only archival material and no original footage or talking heads in a masterstroke of editing. The choices he makes speak to Winehouse’s character and charm and show hidden depths in her distinctive voice.
Early on Kapadia hints at Amy’s tortured quality with dusty and grainy home movies, the pixely digital footage showing the fragmented pieces in her life. As a teen Amy is goofy, spastic and pimply, and when she finally gets some media attention she stands out in her fashion, wearing big red hoop earrings, dark hair in a messy poof, a small piercing above her lip and flaunting her big bad British teeth. Winehouse is comparable to Adele in her torch singer, jazzy and bluesy quality, not to mention their bubbly personalities, but Winehouse is notably raspier and smokier in her vocal tenor, and her attitude is a combination of edgy and sincere. Rapper Mos Def talks in the film about how Winehouse could drink anyone under the table but that she was an absolute sweetheart all the same.
Winehouse says she didn’t know what depression was because she had an outlet in her music. During a recording session for “Back in Black” Winehouse’s vocals are isolated to eerie effect, the words “black…” trailing off into the vacuum. All these little emotional teases are handled with nuance and build to the heady climax of her passing. We learn that Winehouse could’ve gone to rehab and gotten professional help “before the world wanted a piece of her.” We learn she suffered from bulimia, despite how late night comedians would make light of it. And Kapadia holds empty close-ups of her pale eyes for a scarily long time.
“Amy” is at times a harrowing documentary, but a revealing portrait of a star. That song “Rehab” still taunts her as much as it is her calling card, but “Amy” does well to explain why she said “No, no, no.”
3 ½ stars