By Preston Jones, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TNS)
“I don’t think I’ll be famous,” Amy Winehouse remarked in 2003. “I don’t think I could handle it.”
She was half-right, but more than she knew.
This month marks four years since Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning at the far-too-young age of 27.
Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s absorbing documentary about the Grammy-winning British singer-songwriter, makes you feel the loss — quite acutely, at times — all over again.
Employing archival footage and contemporary interviews with every major figure in Winehouse’s life, including her ex-husband, Blake Fielder, and her parents, Janis and Mitchell Winehouse, Amy traces the ascent of the fiercely talented and willful Winehouse from rebellious teenager to global superstar.
Everyone interviewed speaks candidly about Winehouse, even as the story grows progressively more harrowing and sad.
The performer was aptly described by one record executive as a “very old soul in a young body,” and Amy doesn’t offer many revelations, particularly as Winehouse’s downward spiral is concerned.
After all, much of that grim drama played out in print, on TV, and online.
Instead, Amy gives a behind-the-scenes account of her rise to fame, and the few, fleeting moments where it seemed as if she was destined to become an artist for the ages.
Curiously, Kapadia chooses to begin in Winehouse’s teenage years, and barring a few brief mentions, effectively avoids her childhood (despite her early life being mentioned repeatedly in the film as a source of trauma). He moves briskly through her discovery by her first manager, Nick Schmansky, and the recording of her 2003 debut, Frank.
Particularly in the early part of Kapadia’s film, he luxuriates in Winehouse’s guileless performances, letting the film dwell on the concert footage grabbed at various pubs and industry functions, that matchless voice pouring out of her, as effortless as breathing.
But even amid the beauty of Winehouse’s songwriting and singing, darkness begins to creep in. Bulimia and alcoholism are both waved off — Winehouse’s father, Mitchell, seems particularly callous, telling his daughter at one point that rehab isn’t necessary.
Once Winehouse records her breakout sophomore album, 2006’s Back to Black (another event given oddly short shrift), the fame Winehouse never really sought descends with a vengeance, as she tumbles into a black hole of drinking and drug addiction.
For as much as Kapadia traces Winehouse’s artistic evolution — there is talk, late in the film, of her desire to form a supergroup with the Roots’ Questlove, Raphael Saadiq and Mos Def (an early champion); the mind boggles at that array of talent — the director also fashions a subtle indictment of the tabloid media, as well as Winehouse’s oblivious, fame-drunk father. (In one heartbreaking sequence, he shows up during a respite in St. Lucia, with a TV camera crew in tow.)
Amy proves truly shattering when providing glimpses of Winehouse with her guard down; watching Winehouse as her idol, Tony Bennett, announces one of her 2007 Grammy wins, is incredibly moving.
The ugly unraveling of Winehouse’s life infuriates and saddens anew, as Kapadia’s poignant documentary reminds viewers of what was and what might have been, but was ultimately, tragically never to be.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Amy Winehouse; Blake Fielder; Mitchell Winehouse
Rating: R (language and drug material)
Run time: 128 min.
(c)2015 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.