“Self-destructive” is the label commonly attached by armchair pop psychologists to tragic figures like Amy Winehouse, the nervy, unruly and viciously talented British jazz-soul singer who died in 2011, aged just 27, from the cumulative effects of substance abuse. That term only tells half the story, however, in Asif Kapadia’s factually exhaustive, emotionally exhausting documentary “Amy,” which calmly identifies multiple collaborators — some with intentions better than others — in Winehouse’s demise. Hardly innovative in form, but boasting the same depth of feeling and breadth of archival material that made Kapadia’s “Senna” so rewarding, this lengthy but immersive portrait will hit hard with viewers who regard Winehouse among the great lost voices not just of a generation, but of an entire musical genre. Enduring local fascination ensures soaring returns when “Amy” arrives in Blighty this summer; across the pond, A24 should find success in a lower key.
The positioning of “Amy” in the Midnight Screenings strand at Cannes is arguably misleading, implying a lurid, cult-seeking streak to Kapadia’s film that isn’t there — even if its methodical charting of its subject’s personal decline is akin to a horror narrative without any possible escape route. Absent are any sensational gimmicks or theories here: Instead, with its absence of guiding perspective and strictly linear rise-and-fall structure, the pic could be likened to an extended, abnormally intelligent episode of “Behind the Music.” What elevates it from such territory is the access Kapadia has gained to private materials, including voicemails and disarming homevideo, astutely selected and seamlessly integrated by editor Chris King.
Even at her most disarranged, Winehouse presented a highly mannered image to the public; in deepening and humanizing that indelible pop-culture brand, the intimacy of Kapadia’s approach places the film alongside Brett Morgen’s recent anatomy of an icon, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” Like Cobain, of course, Winehouse is a member of the so-called “27 Club,” the group of prodigious popular musicians who died at the same tender age. It’s typical, however, of Kapadia’s avoidance of pat mythmaking that this coincidental distinction isn’t once mentioned in the film.
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From its first appearance on the soundtrack — a teenage rendition of “Happy Birthday” for longtime friend Lauren Gilbert — that richly cracked, merlot-hued voice will be identified even by those passingly acquainted with Winehouse’s music. There’s a jolting disconnect in such early footage, however, between the voice and the physical presence behind it. So pervasive is the memory of the beehived, broken-hearted, gin-soaked chanteuse that Winehouse constructed for her 2006 “Back to Black” album that the vocal seems positively alien emerging from the cheerily gawky, fresh-faced girl from North London’s clean-living Jewish quarter. The evolution will be less startling to British fans who caught wise to Winehouse with the 2003 release of her precociously jazz-toned debut album “Frank”; it’s with the development process behind it that Kapadia effectively begins his study, as friend and talent scout Nick Shymansky persuaded the unconfident music enthusiast that her notebooks of poetry could be converted to songs.
Winehouse’s lyrical craft is a consistent point of interest for Kapadia. Most of her performances in the film are accompanied by onscreen lyrics — a potentially hackneyed device that nonetheless highlights the arresting turns of phrase and lethally acute observations sometimes disguised by her cool, offhand delivery. In an early interview extract, she says that she “wouldn’t write anything unless it was directly personal (to her)”; it’s the kind of claim made by many a more banal pop artist, but the film’s biographical findings often serve to flesh out this statement, revealing real-life parallels for narratives already familiar from her songs. (In one of many archive nuggets illustrating her mouthy, PR-averse wit, she delivers a withering putdown of wholesome hitmaker Dido after an interviewer suggests they come from the same school of heart-on-sleeve songwriting.)
One example of that ruthlessly reflective songwriting is “What Is It About Men,” a scathing meditation on infidelity (“I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate / My alibi for taking your guy”) inspired heavily by her own father’s domestic negligence. An unashamed opportunist who parlayed his daughter’s fame and subsequent downfall into tabloid-celebrity status — complete with an unauthorized reality show, “Amy: The Untold Story” — Mitch Winehouse is presented here as one of two key male influences who inadvertently assisted her decline, with a cavalier attitude to her long-term bulimia and initial denial of her need for addiction treatment.
The other is her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, whose toxic on-off relationship with Winehouse was the driving force behind her double-platinum 2006 sophomore set, “Back to Black,” a crushingly candid breakup album that kicked her global career into touch just as her personal life began to unravel most severely. It was Fielder-Civil who introduced Winehouse — a habitual user of modest narcotics from adolescence — to crack cocaine and heroin, setting in motion a perilously swift downward spiral, every stage of her descent chronicled in cruel close-up by Britain’s unrelenting tabloid media.
Though the film features no editorial voice of its own, it collates the observations of variously involved parties — friends, lovers, bodyguards, record executives, producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson — to create the impression of a woman with numerous investors but no assertive support network, and an abundance of hangers-on keen to commodify her frailty. (Footage from a photo shoot with noted provocateur Terry Richardson, playing on the singer’s history of self-harm, is positively chilling.) The last act makes for grueling yet riveting viewing, as Winehouse’s Sid-and-Nancy-style relationship with Fielder-Civil is forcibly terminated by the latter’s imprisonment for burglary segues into a more desolate loneliness. Even her tentative recovery from drug addiction comes with a bitter kicker, as her commercial fortunes rest on revisiting songs from the most painful period of her life. As an artist, Kapadia’s film implies, your demons become lifelong collaborators.
Even in its most despairing stretches, it’s the music that gives “Amy” air: While Kapadia includes sequences from shambolic concerts performed at the singer’s lowest ebb, there are as many a spellbinding instances of her voice emerging robustly from internal chaos. A 2007 performance of the torch song “Love Is a Losing Game” from Britain’s Mercury Music Awards is as pristine as it is devastating; at the film’s close, tender rehearsal footage of a duet recorded with her idol, Tony Bennett, only a few months before her death signifies the musical recovery she might have enjoyed. Bennett himself is among the most emotionally unguarded of the film’s interviewees, demanding that Winehouse’s memory be preserved in the company of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. It’s the most openly gushing testimony in this reserved yet profoundly felt film; after two hours of heartache, “Amy” has earned a simple valentine.