Listening to Amy Winehouse’s 2006 hit single “Rehab” while she was alive and publicly struggling with addiction was difficult enough. The surface delights of that song—its retro-style girl-group melody, its tight horn arrangement, Winehouse’s trademark bluesy growl—contrasted so starkly with the harrowing lyrics: “I ain’t got the time/ And my daddy thinks I’m fine/ He’s tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go.” A completely unfictionalized account of her then-recent experience with her bullying manager-father and a half-hearted and short-lived visit to an addiction and recovery facility, “Rehab” was a cry for help with a toe-tapping rhythm, a suicide note you could dance to.
After Winehouse died in 2011 from alcohol poisoning (exacerbated by a heart condition resulting from years of addiction and bulimia), listening to “Rehab” became outright uncomfortable. To enjoy the song’s catchiness—or even worse, Winehouse’s sexily defiant punk attitude while singing it—felt wrong. But once you’ve seen Amy, Asif Kapadia’s beautiful documentary about the short, unhappy life of Amy Winehouse, listening to “Rehab” may become something you never care to do again. It would be hard to belt along with that irresistibly hooky chorus while crying.
Because Winehouse’s rise to fame coincided with the rise of digital media—or maybe just because she, her friends, and her increasingly ill-chosen lovers all lived their lives on camera—Kapadia draws from an unusually ample trove of footage shot both by and of the singer in her everyday life, a home-movie archive that would be the envy of any documentarian. Kapadia’s previous film was the extraordinary 2010 documentary Senna, which was also about a young prodigy who died at the height of his fame. Here he seamlessly stitches the surfeit of clips together with bits from Winehouse’s TV appearances and radio interviews, interviews with people who knew her (these are usually heard in audio only, over images from Winehouse’s life), and—most movingly—both live and in-studio performances by Winehouse herself. It’s a sine qua non of a truly good music documentary that it must include as many full song performances, beginning to end, as possible. There’s nothing more frustrating than listening to a succession of record-industry talking heads go on about the mind-blowing pop-cultural significance of a track, then getting to listen to six bars of it before the narrator rushes to make his next point.
Kapadia understands that the best way to tell the story of Amy Winehouse—a young woman who, as one friend remembers, lived as if she were desperately, unrequitedly in love with the history of music itself—is to let us hear her sing. So we do—and not just the big hits like “Rehab” and “Back to Black” and “Valerie,” but less familiar songs like “Stronger Than Me,” the least successful single from her debut album Frank, which we hear delivered in a wrenching stripped-down version that makes clear why Winehouse objected to that album’s overly lush production. “Stronger Than Me”—an apparent plea to an addicted lover, whose video shows Winehouse giving up on a boyfriend after he staggers home drunk from a date—also reads now as a barely disguised warning about the fate that awaited Winehouse herself, especially after she got involved with Blake Fielder-Civil in 2005. They married in 2007 and, even after they divorced two years later, remained embroiled in a violent, co-dependent, and substance-abuse-centric relationship best summed up in this bleak lyric from “Back to Black”: “ I love you much/ It’s not enough/ You love blow and I love puff.”
In a wealth of old phone footage and one brief but bone-chilling sit-down interview, Fielder-Civil comes off as a wretched waste of a human being, although the line of thought that blames him for Winehouse’s decline strikes me as futile scapegoating. As the force of her personality in these clips shows, Amy Winehouse was more than capable of destroying herself on her own. Even as a teenager, singing “Happy Birthday” to her friend Lauren Gilbert (who, along with their common pal Juliette Ashby, provides candid, often choked-up testimony about the closeness of this three-way adolescent friendship), Winehouse is a one-woman power-generating station, with a voice that somehow harks back to the great jazz divas (Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone) while sounding utterly like itself. She also has a one-of-a-kind stage presence even in those early clips, a way of directly conveying emotion to an audience that we watch her polish and refine and then, heartbreakingly, lose over the course of just a few years. (A working-class Jewish girl from North London, Winehouse first caught the attention of music executives in her late teens and was dead by 27.)
Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymansky—who, though he never quite says it out loud, was clearly in love with her—tells the story of attempting to get the singer into rehab via a combination of family-aided interventions and managerial tough love. But Winehouse’s father, Mitch, later backed up by her second manager Raye Cosbert, insisted that there was no sense in forcing her to get clean (especially if there was a big concert tour already booked). Somehow, Winehouse’s family and management even wound up consenting to a disastrous attempt to let Fielder-Civil and Winehouse check into a rehab center and get clean together. After a low moment in 2008—Kapadia shows us a few upsetting cellphone photos of Winehouse looking like a skin-and-bones junkie in her cramped Camden flat but stops short of wallowing in the sordidness as some documentarians would—Winehouse pulled her act together and began writing a new album. But by 2011, exhausted by a merciless touring schedule and an ever-present crowd of paparazzi, Winehouse was again using, and miserable. A clip from a show in Belgrade, Serbia, shortly before her death shows her coming onstage either drunk or high, then freezing at the sight of the vast, screaming crowd and refusing to sing. The screams quickly turn to boos as Winehouse stands at the back of the stage, alternately hugging her band mates and staring out at the crowd with a painfully incongruous smile.
Kapadia offers no explicit directorial commentary on how this brilliant and promising young performer arrived at this sad state, but he pulls no punches about Winehouse’s enablers either. Winehouse’s mother, Janis, remembers a moment when her teenage daughter revealed her genius new diet plan: She would just eat whatever she wanted, then make herself throw it up. In retrospect, the bulimia diagnosis is clear, but at the time, Janis Winehouse missed out on a lot of things, including her ex-husband’s lack of scruple about jumping on the gravy train his gifted but vulnerable daughter provided.
Amy Winehouse’s story is a tragic one—as with Kurt Cobain, who also died at 27, her potential as a singer and songwriter was only just beginning to be realized. Yet the prevailing mood of this documentary is joy. Kapadia captures what was irreplaceable about this unique performer, and in the process gives her the opportunity to do what she was made to do, the only thing she ever really wanted: to sing.