Chasing Amy

Amy Taubin on Asif Kapadia’s Amy

Asif Kapadia, Amy, 2015, video, black-and-white and color, sound, 128 minutes.

ELLEN WILLIS wrote that Janis Joplin’s death was “an artistic as well as a human calamity.” So too was the death of Amy Winehouse. Calamity is an easier word than tragedy, which carries all that classical baggage. But as he showed with Senna (2010), his documentary portrait of Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, filmmaker Asif Kapadia is a master of the modern tragic narrative, and his documentary Amy fulfills the form.

Pity, terror, and, rather than catharsis, heartbreaking loss: The film limns Winehouse’s short, brilliantly creative life and overdetermined death in 2011 at age twenty-seven. You very well may obsessively limn the film after it’s over, feeling guilty about every death in your life that, just maybe, you could have prevented, if only . . . Amy hits home.

And of course, home is where it begins, with a trio of giggly fourteen-year-old girls sucking lollipops and mocking the camera, until one of them starts singing “Happy Birthday” and you instantly recognize the voice—a little more wavering in pitch than it would become but already dark and husky, circling the notes of the familiar melody like a fledgling Sarah Vaughan. In a matter of seconds the lollipop becomes a ciggie—and a bottle—and there is Winehouse at sixteen, on stage with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, doing a cover of “Moon River” that announces she’s arrived and then some.

Employing the same process as in Senna, Kapadia gathered massive amounts of photos and moving images: home movies shot on iPhones and cheap video cameras, studio recording sessions, audition tapes, TV appearances, live concert coverage. Even before the paparazzi descended in droves, Winehouse lived her life on camera, a tiny North London Jewish girl with facial bones resembling Barbra Streisand’s (same resonators) staring down the lens with eyes black-lined early-’60s style (à la Ronnie Spector or Brigitte Bardot or Streisand), her intensely fixed gaze a challenge with just the hint of a plea. Except when she was too stoned to hold it together, this was the single face she presented to the camera, which is strikingly at odds with the fantastic flexibility of her voice, her talent for vocal improvisation, and the wild emotional and stylistic range of her singing. With editor Chris King, Kapadia arranged the visual material almost entirely chronologically, using voice-over culled from hundreds of audio interviews with friends, family, musician colleagues, and various overseers of Winehouse’s career to tie the narrative together. (No talking heads were recorded for the film and there is no voice of authority.) The raw emotional charge of the film comes largely from Winehouse, but the heartbreak in the voices of her close friends is our point of entry and identification.

Kapadia also allows Winehouse to provide an autobiographical thread by inscribing her lyrics on the screen as we hear her songs. She wrote the music and lyrics for almost every song on her depressingly few albums: Frank (2003), Back to Black (2006), and the posthumous Hidden Treasures (2011). Like her voice, the songs combine musical sophistication with raw, unsettling emotion. In the tradition of the jazz singers and the R&B girl groups whose sounds she made her own, Winehouse sang about love gone wrong, love as pain, love as addiction. It took a lot more defiance for a woman as tough and sassy as Winehouse was (at least in her self-presentation) to open up about those feelings in the twenty-first century than it had been for Billie Holiday or the Ronettes or even Janis.

Asif Kapadia, Amy, 2015, video, black-and-white and color, sound, 128 minutes.

In the essay about Janis, Willis wrote: “Watching men groove on Janis, I began to appreciate the resentment that many black people feel toward whites who are blues freaks. Janis sang out of her pain as a woman, and men dug it. Yet it was men who caused the pain, and if they stopped causing it they would not have her to dig.” Willis goes on to say that Janis had an adversary relation to the blues, that she used blues conventions to reject blues sensibility but was trapped in the contradiction. Winehouse embraced the blues and soul and gospel and reggae, and had she lived to make another album, rap—black music across the board. Her scorn was directed at those of her own generation who sing as if they’re in control. In a piece for NPR after Winehouse died, critic Ann Powers quoted an interview she did with her in 2007. “ ‘When I fell in love, I thought, “I’m going to die with you,” ’ she told me, referring to her romance with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, which at that point was in a lull. ‘So much pop these days is like, “What can you do for me? I don’t need you. You don’t know me.” Back in the ’60s it really was like, “I don’t care if you love me, I’m gonna lay down and die for you, because I’m in love with you.” ’ ”

Fielder-Civil comes off badly in Amy, and so does Mitch Winehouse, the father who was absent when Amy was a child and returned to exploit her money and fame. Kapadia doesn’t openly editorialize, but he selected the clips and it’s hard to believe that Mr. Winehouse could mount a defense against what we see of him on screen: Bringing a camera crew to make a reality show about himself to the resort where in 2009 Amy has gone explicitly to escape the incessant paparazzi assaults; insisting that she fulfill her tour commitments in 2008 when alcohol and drugs and bulimia had nearly destroyed her body and, again, in 2011 when she was near death. On the other hand, she had friends and colleagues who loved her and who still seem heartsick that they could not check her fall.

But despite the ending, which we know even before we buy our tickets, Amy is not a depressing movie. Winehouse put her torn-up feelings and genre samplings inside perfect Brill Building song structures. Kapadia pulls off a similar feat. Amy is tightly constructed as a three-act drama and it moves at a ferocious pace. In the first act we see Winehouse on the way up. The performance clips of her singing in small clubs and festivals are thrilling. And she’s a hoot in person. The second act yo-yos up and down. There’s an amazing bit in the studio where she’s recording Back to Black. She’s alone in the booth, singing into the mic, listening to the back-up through phones. Kapadia begins the sequence with just her voice, then adds the sound of the band and then pulls them out so she’s alone again. She received six Grammy nominations in 2008 for the album, and she won five of them. In voice-over, we hear Lucian Grainge, the head of Universal Music Group, say that he told her that if she showed up at the Grammys stoned she would never record again. The threat apparently worked. Winehouse’s drug-use history, however, kept her from getting a visa, so she performs via satellite from a London studio. When she realizes that her idol Tony Bennett is going to present one of her awards, the look on her face is pure ecstasy. But minutes later she tells one of her best friends that it was completely boring without drugs. That’s the moment, telegraphed through perfectly timed editing, that we know it’s over for her.

The last act is simply devastating. Winehouse is wasting away before everyone’s eyes and the media jackals are swooping in for the kill. A special corner in hell should be reserved for Jay Leno, who jokes about her addiction in his Tonight Show monologue. There’s a lovely interlude where she records a duet with Bennett, “Body and Soul.” She keeps stopping short, scared that she can’t sing. Bennett, who was a huge supporter, is very tender, assuring her that all the great ones are terrified until they get into the song. He would later say that he didn’t realize how sick she was but that she probably knew then that she was dying. And die she did a few months after. She was a pisser, in every sense of the word. That’s what Kapadia captures in his film, and her great musical talent as well.

Amy is now playing in select theaters.