In a baffled corner of a recording studio, headphones on, Amy Winehouse is singing "Back In Black" to music tracks already laid down. She's at the mic, alone, a hand in the pocket of her cutoffs, the other clutching her phone. She's as casual as can be, and she's killing it: "I died a hundred times/You go back to her/And I go back to. . .black. . . black. . . black."
Finished, she looks to the control booth with a rueful smile. "Oh, it's pretty upsetting at the end, isn't it?"
It is, indeed.
Asif Kapadia's extraordinary documentary, Amy, is filled with similarly soul-stirring, heartbreaking moments. A devastating chronicle of the blazing career of the British singer - who died in 2011 at age 27, a victim of too much drink, too many drugs, and too much fame - the film is remarkable not just for the immense talent there to see in Winehouse's performances, but the fact that there isso much to see. Smartphones, music videos, photo sessions, concert footage, paparazzi shots, TV interviews, more smart phones . . . the London daughter of a taxi driver dad and a pharmacist mom grew up in the dawning of the selfie era. And the iPhones and Androids belonging to friends, lovers, bandmates, roadies, record execs, and fans seemed to be forever trained on her.
Although Kapadia has lamented in interviews that he was pressed to find good archival material from key chapters of Winehouse's life, what he has found, and deployed with the instincts of an ace storyteller, is rich, revealing, often jarring stuff. (It's all relative: For Kapadia's 2010 doc, Senna, about late Brazilian race car star Ayrton Senna, the filmmaker had hundreds of hours of thrilling Formula One footage at his disposal, much of it from a camera mounted on Senna's own car.)
The cameras in Amy capture its subject as a 16-year-old belting out a strikingly sophisticated "Moon River" with the National Youth Orchestra; as a 21-year-old strumming her guitar, auditioning for a record label; in small clubs at the beginning of her journey; and on stages at giant festivals as her records topped the charts. Near the end of the film - and of Winehouse's life - there is the infamous Belgrade concert, with Winehouse wobbling on stage, weaving like a prizefighter who has just taken a blow to the head. She mumbles her way around a few songs. The band doesn't know what to do. The audience boos.
Amy, which flashes Winehouse's deft and deeply personal lyrics across the screen as a kind of narrative guide, is a story of fame, of the impossible demands of celebrity culture, of ambition, art, and addiction. It is also the story of enablers and exploiters.
Mitchell Winehouse emerges as a man who does not have his daughter's best interest at heart. He shrugs off her bulimia, her addiction. He brings a reality TV crew along to the vacation island where Winehouse is trying to regroup in private. (He has condemned the film, citing it as untruthful.) The portrait of Blake Fielder-Civil, the Camdentown scenester whom Winehouse hooks up with and marries - sharing a house and a crack cocaine habit - is likewise damning.
But there are friends who were there at the start and who stay true to this wry, self-effacing woman with the beehive, the tats, the voice that evokes Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and the Shangri-Las. There are the collaborators and colleagues, like producer Salaam Remi, hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey, the Roots' Questlove. In a crushingly wonderful moment in the film, Winehouse is in the studio with Tony Bennett, her hero, trying out some exploratory takes of the classic "Body and Soul." Her phrasing off, Winehouse apologizes for wasting the Master's time. Mensch that he is, Bennett urges her on.
The finished recording, from Bennett's Duets II album, went on to win a Grammy award - after Winehouse's death.