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Amy

Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking documentary profile of Amy Winehouse lays bare the complicated life of the late singer

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Amy Winehouse
  • Amy Winehouse

You think you know Amy Winehouse — that she was famous, talented, a mess. That's all true, but what Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking documentary profile Amy lays bare are the complicated ways that those aspects intertwined to undo the British singer, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, at age 27.

The film's first half recounts Amy's rise, the future star still a nervous but effervescent teenager, charting a course to becoming a contemporary jazz singer and songwriter. In 2003, she records an LP, Frank, and soon after that, things begin to fall apart. She begins a tumultuous, drug-fueled relationship with scenester Blake Fielding-Civil, and becomes a tabloid fixture for her antics. A drug intervention fails ("I said, no no no"). In 2006, the soul-infused Back to Black sells a bazillion copies, and the deeply troubled Winehouse is catapulted to stardom. From there, except for a handful of bright spots, it's a shocking downward spiral, with seemingly every painful personal and professional moment captured on camera.

For Amy, Kapadia employs the same style he did in his excellent 2010 documentary Senna, about the Formula One driver. Eschewing talking heads and narration, the story is told through available footage (from TV broadcasts to personal cell-phone video), over which identified but unseen participants in Winehouse's life recount what happened and what went wrong.

There's blame to go around: the music industry's greed, messy family dynamics and Winehouse's self-destructive tendencies. And we're not off the hook: Winehouse found fame at a time when a disastrous concert wasn't an event seen by a few, but a must-see moment, uploaded to TMZ or YouTube to be enjoyed by millions as a perverse form of entertainment. We're there somewhere in the ever-present paparazzi scrums, with their strobe-like flashes; Kapadia slows down that footage, so Winehouse looks nothing less than a terrified trapped animal.

The film opens with a 14-year-old Winehouse goofing off with friends at a birthday gathering, before delivering a fantastic off-the-cuff rendition of "Happy Birthday." It's a moment of exhilarating talent and promise that will dog you throughout this sad film, and likely linger afterward. Starts Fri., July 10. AMC Waterfront and Manor

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