Amy, film review: Beautiful film reveals ugly truth behind singer's downward spiral

Asif Kapadia, 123 mins, featuring: Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, Salaam Remi (15)

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The Independent Culture

There is an unutterable sadness at the heart of Asif Kapadia’s brilliant new film about Amy Winehouse, the singer who died from alcohol poisoning in 2011 aged only 27.

Why did Winehouse go off the rails? There were many, many contributory factors: her parents’ separation; her lifestyle when she moved to Camden; the wayward influence of her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil; the pressure of the enormous fame after the release of her second album Back To Black; her often appalling treatment at the hands of the media and her own self-destructiveness, Kapadia realises that it is far too late now to be looking where to lay the blame.

One of the great strengths of Amy is that it doesn’t indulge in simple-minded accusations about who may or may not have been responsible for Winehouse’s tragically untimely death.

Instead, starting with Amy as a precocious, jazz-singing teenager in Southgate in the late 1990s, Kapadia takes us through his subject’s life. He and his collaborators have unearthed a huge amount of home movie footage shot by her friends as well as archive material and old photos and demos. There are also extensive interviews with those closest to her.

The Amy we first encounter is described as “a North London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude.” She is witty, abrasive (“gobby”) and an incredible jazz singer who wrote gut wrenchingly personal songs.

On one level, the film unfolds like a modern-day Rake’s Progress. Winehouse becomes richer and richer, more and more famous, and then her spectacular descent begins. 

One of the paradoxes about the public’s attitude toward Winehouse, who often seems like contemporary music’s answer to Sylvia Plath, is that everyone wanted her to recover and yet still took a ghoulish pleasure in her problems. Chat show hosts and comedians who should have known better are shown here joking casually about her addictions, forgetting how young and vulnerable she was.

Legendary crooner Tony Bennett sums up Winehouse’s inability to help herself the most perceptively. As he puts it, ”life teaches you really how to live it…if you live long enough.”

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