Many creative souls will find a kindred spirit in Amy Winehouse, the focus of Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, Amy. Beneath the shine and scrutiny of camera flashes was a humble North London girl who made music to channel and combat a wellspring of inner darkness. Through home videos and off-camera voiceovers from unseen old friends, Kapadia reveals a compulsively creative old soul happiest in the studio and on the small stage. She was a pure artist, a true jazz singer, says idol and collaborator Tony Bennett — she didn’t care for the massive crowds.
But the crowds came like flies to an open wound, hungry and corrosive. We walk with Amy as the press hounds her and the world mocks her, as toxic husband Blake Fielder-Civil drugs her, and as well-meaning but ignorant father Mitch reaps her fame’s rewards. We watch her away from the limelight in intimate and hilarious exchanges with friends and as a bold force in the studio. Personal, revealing, and unobstructed by the usual documentary talking-head-style interviews, Kapadia’s film has the joint closeness and distance of a memorial photo album.
Fame killed her as much as her addictions did, and Amy allows us to witness the interrelatedness of external and internal demons. Was it a troubled childhood, an enabling inner circle, a careless and insatiable culture? It was all of those things, and something deeper and darker, too. Genius can be a lonely island, made ever more desolate by the encroaching and greedy tides of lesser minds. And like Kurt Cobain and others before, Winehouse’s brilliant self-expression only found light from within the shadows of self-obliteration. It’s possible Winehouse would have met a similar end even if fame never found her, but it’s clear that the fakery and fanaticism of stardom expedited her end.
We see her gaunt and ghoulish in selfies taken near the end of her life, and her loneliness is profound. So many factors fueled her downfall, from the madness of addiction cycles to the celeb-addicted media rhythms that encouraged them. In its tender and tragic tone, Amy works because when she falls, we feel it, too.