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Documentary Chronicles Rise and Fall of Jazz Singer Amy Winehouse

  • Penelope Poulou

Jazz superstar Amy Winehouse rocketed to fame, and disappeared just as suddenly and surprisingly. Her rise and fall is chronicled in a new documentary called simply, Amy, by filmmaker Asif Kapadia.

Using anecdotal home videos shot by Winehouse’s friends and producers, concert material, public interviews and recording sessions, Kapadia creates a delightful and haunting portrait of the iconic singer.

It opens with a never seen before home video of a 14 year old Amy Winehouse singing happy birthday to a close friend. The footage shows the adolescent singer already commanding a seasoned raspy voice that poured out like honey. But the documentary shows the singer never imagined how famous that voice would make her.

“I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous,” she tells a friend. “I don’t think I can handle it. I would probably go mad, you know what I mean? I would go mad.”

The E Street Theater in Washington, D.C. was packed for a screening of the new documentary "Amy' about the late singer Amy Winehouse, July 7, 2015. (Penelope Poulou/VOA)

The E Street Theater in Washington, D.C. was packed for a screening of the new documentary "Amy' about the late singer Amy Winehouse, July 7, 2015. (Penelope Poulou/VOA)

The filmmaker revives Amy Winehouse’s fresh and starry-eyed days as a young musician and takes us along on the singer’s emotional roller coaster, all the way to her untimely end in 2011, when she died of an alcohol overdose. She was 27 years old.

Kapadia does not provide any post-mortem analysis of Winehouse’s triumph and descent. Instead, he lets the story tell itself, through countless personal videos with friends and family, and the singer's own words and thoughts.

The film also guides us through Winehouse’s blossoming music career. Her charisma pulls us in. The singer’s ever-present personal demons could not outshine her phenomenal voice and genuine presence on and off stage.

Her immense success came from her need to find an emotional outlet writing lyrics and singing. That was her way, as she says on footage, to ward off her bouts of depression. But she never tried for fame or awards.

The film offers the scene of a stunned Winehouse when she hears her very own idol, singer Tony Bennett, announcing her Grammy winner for the record of the year in 2008.

But the film also shows her personal weaknesses. One of them was her addictive personality. She could not break from her destructive relationship with Blake Fielder, her husband and partner in drugs. As the marriage unravels she comes undone sinking deeper into drug and alcohol addiction.

The documentary portrays her father, Mitchell Winehouse, as opportunistic and in denial about his daughter’s life-threatening drug addiction. He criticized the film as one-sided. “This is not the film Amy would want to. She’d want me not to be portrayed in this light,“ he says. It is rumored that he is planning to make his own documentary telling his side to the story about his daughter and her demise.

But above anyone else, Kapadia’s documentary points the finger for Winehouse’s downfall at her adoring fans, who fell in love with her so hard they wanted a piece of her. Paparazzi followed her everywhere. Lack of privacy and space took a toll on the shy and frail performer.

Kapadia’s Amy gratifies the fans with the singer's presence once again, but gradually causes a sense of unease as it chronicles her emotional and physical disintegration. This film points to the tragic irony that Winehouse crumbled under her own enormous talent and fame. It also levels unwavering criticism against popular culture and tabloid voyeurism that ruins what it loves.