It’s all too easy to revert to familiar rhetoric when the subject is Amy Winehouse. Superbly gifted, the singer also publicly grappled with addiction to alcohol and heroin, a battle with demons that seems part and parcel of many doomed creative lives, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain.
Here’s another convenient buzzword: trainwreck. As most people familiar with her signature beehive hairstyle and dramatic cat-eye makeup know, Winehouse, who died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning, was the poster girl for the tabloid-driven culture of mass schadenfreude that was at its most gleefully vicious in the mid-aughts, pointing and laughing at a string of young women — Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus — before spitting them out in favor of the next horror show.
“Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s sensitive, superbly constructed, ultimately shattering documentary about Winehouse’s life and career, doesn’t traffic in the cliches of demons and trainwrecks. Rather, it interrogates them, allowing Winehouse to come into her own as a gifted, conflicted, self-destructive but deeply resilient young woman who died far too soon.
“Amy” begins with a transfixing scene, a home movie in which a 14-year-old Winehouse sings “Happy Birthday” with the unforced confidence of a natural torch singer. A later rendition of “Moon River” is just as precociously scorching. Kapadia, who directed the spellbinding 2010 car-racing documentary “Senna,” methodically takes viewers through the promising trajectory of Winehouse’s early career — publishing deals and label signings — immersing them in the vicarious thrill of discovery, artistic exploration and sudden, incandescent fame.
Just as vividly, he injects a note of doom when Winehouse meets her future husband and fellow addict, Blake Fielder-Civil. Their union would coincide with the most disastrously self-destructive chapter in Winehouse’s life.
Meticulously composed of present-day interviews and splendidly curated archival footage — Winehouse’s reaction to being compared to Dido in an early interview is priceless — “Amy” rescues Winehouse’s reputation, restoring her to her rightful place as a jazz interpreter on a par with Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett, whom she idolized. But it transcends the usual rise-and-fall structure of conventional nonfiction biopics.
In Kapadia’s assured and careful hands, the film becomes less a portrait of a tragic artist, whose downward spiral was exacerbated by opportunistic family members and colleagues, than a discomfiting mirror held up to her audience. The most withering passages of “Amy” portray a paparazzi-dependent press eagerly chronicling the more lurid effects of Winehouse’s afflictions, while late-night talk show hosts make sport of her eating disorder and drug problems.
These interludes make for queasy viewing in “Amy.” They also make it less about Winehouse’s addictions than the pathological compulsions of a culture that can’t get enough of demons, trainwrecks and the cruel spectacle of self-immolation. In the immortal words of Bennett, with whom Winehouse recorded her last song before she died, “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough.”
Even if it’s too late for Winehouse, Kapadia asks in “Amy,” are the rest of us learning anything at all?
Four stars. Rated R. Contains obscenity and drug references. 128 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of ti