Raw ‘Amy’ charts harrowing fall of singer Winehouse

Amy Winehouse performs “Rehab” during 2007 MTV Movie Awards – Show at Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Watching “Amy” is like riding a terrifying roller coaster, a sort of horror film as documentary. You want to warn the heroine not to open that door. But director Asif Kapadia’s searing documentary about Amy Winehouse, the late six-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, is gripping movie-making.

“Amy” is a finely crafted film and a harrowing, wild ride about a very talented yet flawed young woman whose successful career was cut short by a combination of sudden fame, aggressive media, a toxic inner circle and her own poor choices. 

Born to a working class Jewish family in London, Winehouse was gifted with a beautiful voice and a passion for jazz. She was also a fragile person with a difficult family life. When switched from jazz to pop music, her modest music career was transformed into international superstardom. 

When Winehouse died suddenly from alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011, the media had already wrapped her in the mythic image of a hard-drinking, drugging rock musician bent on self-destruction. But as “Amy” reveals, the truth is more complex. The film skips the usual media sensation, showing a musician gripped by bulimia, alcoholism and drug addiction. Meanwhile, those closest to her did little to intervene and, in some cases, actually aided her destruction.

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Kapadia seems to have a knack for this kind of grab-you-by-the-throat biography. The director’s award-winning documentary “Senna” was as much an expose of deep cracks in the regulation of Formula One racing as an insightful look at South American racing star Senna. Like “Senna,” “Amy” has sparked controversy, with Winehouse’s family decrying how they have been represented. 

“Amy” is an intimate, personal film presented in a fresh and innovative format, but also a sort of cautionary tale. With Winehouse sometimes providing the narrative, the documentary presents a wealth of cell phone and home-movie footage, along with concert and news video. The film also features interviews with Winehouse’s parents,  friends, manager and music industry colleagues, often with those voices heard over footage of Winehouse herself. 

The footage shot by friends and family gives us an intimate glimpse into the teenage Winehouse before moving on to her rocket ride to fame and rapid decline. “Amy” also offers insights into the singer through concert footage during which the personal lyrics of her songs are shown onscreen in a handwriting-style script, underscoring their meaning to her. 

The early footage of Amy shows a charming, funny, sassy girl surrounded by close friends who care about her. Her relationship with her parents is more strained, with an uninvolved, then absent, father and a mother not inclined to rein in her strong-willed daughter who was already prone to alcoholism and bulimia. 

Even before fame strikes, the singer is at the center of a battle between good and bad influences. Her longtime friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert and first manager Nick Shymansky are among those on the good side, with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, on the bad, along with other family members.

The video footage and even interviews with Winehouse’s mother often create a portrait of toxic relationships. In particular, Winehouse’s father comes off badly, starring in a reality show about his famous daughter as her life unravels, as does Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to heroin. 

Not surprisingly, Winehouse’ family has objected to their portrayal in the film, speaking out in articles published in the Times of Israel and other newspapers and claiming that the documentary misrepresents them. The director has responded that he thinks the film is an honest portrait of the singer’s brief life. 

Winehouse’s flaws and talent were a combination that made her ripe for tragedy when fame and the media frenzy hit. But it is the neglect, even exploitation, by people close to her that makes this heartbreaking cautionary tale so engrossing. 

 

‘Amy’

Running time: 2:08

Opens Friday, July 10 at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema and Tivoli Theater