What can another posthumous story tell us about someone who’s already been the subject of a thousand eulogies? A lot, it turns out. Amy is the second major documentary this year to find something fresh to say about a star whose brief life and untimely death had seemingly been pillaged for every last half-truth and salacious detail. The first, April’s almost painfully intimate Kurt Cobain portrait, Montage of Heck, did it by combining previously unseen source material with vivid, often surreal visuals. Amy takes a less arty approach, though the result is equally devastating.
Like Cobain, Amy Winehouse found early, spectacular success but was never quite able to master her battles with substance abuse and the strange invasiveness of fame. Also like him, she lost the fight at 27 (see sidebar). Filmmaker Asif Kapadia is lucky to have the cooperation of many of the people closest to her—some of which was later withdrawn—and remarkable troves of raw footage. (A scene of her recording the aching relationship requiem “Back to Black” a cappella is the stuff goose bumps are made of.) More important, though, he shows Winehouse as the funny, wild, brilliant girl she was before the beehives and headlines subsumed it all. Yes, her relationships with the two most important men in her life—her father, Mitch, and her husband-muse, Blake Fielder-Civil—were nearly as unhealthy as her addictions, and there’s a car-crash fascination in watching how directly that pain and dysfunction shaped the songs that millions adored her for. Still, Amy is a rare thing to watch: neither hagiography nor hatchet job but a full, unvarnished portrait that brings a larger-than-life icon back to earth—and makes her infinitely more interesting for it. A