‘Amy’
Director:
Asif Kapadia
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

In her last years Amy Winehouse was mostly visible as a troubled, makeup-smeared slave to drugs and drink, splattered all over tabloids and articles that crowed, often with jokes, about how far she’d fallen. Very little of those sights are in the intimate doc “Amy.” It’s not that it skips over or even downplays that period; indeed, her plight ruthlessly absconds with the second half, just when her career is taking off. But director Asif Kapadia doesn’t fill the screen with these overplayed images, and eventually we barely see her or, more to the point, hear her. When she disappears down a drug hole, we’re made to feel the loss of someone, particularly given how the first half prominently boasted the young, pre-fame, absolutely chooglin’ Winehouse.

“Amy” arrives on the heels of a film that is superficially the same, namely Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” Both have the same general aims: to rescue a doomed musical legend from the public view, and to portray fame as something, at least in their cases, antithetical to artistic creation. The two films share something else in common: they are almost entirely made with footage that isn’t people sitting in front of cameras, vomiting up exposition and opinions. (“Montage of Heck” had some talking heads but Morgen shot all of them from unusual angles, so the people weren’t simply staring into the camera.) As in Kapadia’s “Senna,” new interviews are played over footage, each person identified by name via on-screen text, so we can stay lost in a barrage of archival images.

Here is where the two films split. For one thing, Winehouse came about at a time when filming your life and documenting yourself was far easier than in Cobain’s era. And Winehouse was a more outgoing figure than the oft-reclusive (though, as the film shows, sometimes quite dynamic) Cobain. It can be disarming, given her turbulent public image in her final days, to see the young, unfailingly personable, Winehouse, with truly British teeth, bop about, charming people left and right. Even when playing irritated with interviewers, her dodginess was itself funny, and she genuinely seems uninterested in fame or aware that the world will suddenly and semi-inexplicably seize upon someone who sings, of all genres, jazz.

In helping craft a new kind of rock doc, Kapadia avoids nearly every cliche, though he can’t resist depicting her newfound success with a cheesy montage of magazine covers. (“Montage of Heck,” by contrast, cut from the realization that “Nevermind” would explode to a battering ram of soul-sucking interviews. Cobain never even got to enjoy his fame.) But he’s careful and gentle when it comes to how to portray the unraveling Winehouse, who suddenly isn’t that up to goof around in front of cameras, even those held by loved ones. The images become more abrasive; there are untold shots of paparazzi hounding her, their flashbulbs like machine gun fire. Blake Fielder, her to-be-ex-husband, who joined her in their drug wallows, speaks on the soundtrack with a deep nasal, as though every word was coated in regret. 

Late in comes an unnerving shot of Winehouse peering through pulled blinds at whoever shot it. At this point “Amy”’s plethora of home video footage starts to feel if not unclean then at least problematic. Winehouse lost control of her life, to her fans, to the press, to her father, to her habit. Now her footage is handed over to someone else, albeit a filmmaker trying his best to set the record straight. “Amy” nimbly avoids being full-on questionable, and among the only footage of the shaky, near-death Winehouse we see is her uneasy duet with a patient, adoring Tony Bennett. “Amy” is best used as a gutting portrayal of a lifeforce who would have been better off not being the kind of person who earns a film like “Amy.”

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