You probably can’t count the number of books written on the demise of Rome.
Opinions on what felled the ancients are as expansive as the empire was at its height.
In many ways, the death of someone as talented as Amy Winehouse — who would have conquered the world given time — creates a cottage industry for those looking to firmly plant their finger on someone or something to blame.
But what is so brilliant about director Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” is that it lays out what would seem like competing narratives of What Went Wrong — a troubled childhood, relationship issues, substance abuse, the crush of fame and paparazzi — and forcing viewers to confront each and every one of them with no conclusion but the one that matters: This young woman was not saved despite so many sincerely caring for her and so many others profiting from her.
Winehouse, to the world beyond her fan base, has been pigeonholed as just another member of the “27 Club,” alongside Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and others who died young. She was a spectacle, a punch line and a cautionary tale. With Kapadia’s approach to her life, she is a person — someone whose lyrics, presented frequently on screen as her songs play — are impossibly personal, something that perhaps was lost on casual observers who are wont to write her existence off as just another celebrity flame-out.
What makes “Amy” as incisive as it is? The journey from teenage Amy in home videos, looking more like a young Minnie Driver, to the face the world knew of Amy Winehouse, the larger-than-life star. Singing with friends and playing guitar before landing her first big recording contract, the personal videos show us precisely how outsized her voice was compared to any part of her physical body — for as gaunt as she looked for much of her life in the spotlight, she seems even smaller against the enormity of the vocals she belted out as a North London kid.
As Kapadia did with his excellent documentary “Senna,” the film uses virtually no sit-down interviews from friends, family or others who knew her. Instead, their audio plays over the myriad intimate videos taken by friends and her manager, as well as TV interviews and news footage.
This style stands out with each recollection of Amy simultaneously acting as a reflection of the speaker. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) comes across as a genuinely adoring friend when he speaks about her “edgy and sincere.” Meanwhile, Amy’s embattled ex-husband Blake Civil-Fielder is heard in voice-over in a raspy, almost villainous voice as he paints a radically different portrait of Winehouse than her friends’ view — listen even briefly and you get the sense from his tone that he had as big a part in her descent into drugs as anyone.
But whether you latch onto Amy’s mother talking about how she thought her daughter’s bulimia would simply pass after a while, or you’re certain that the seizure-inducing flashes from the paparazzi cameras are what pushed Amy into her self-destructive ways, “Amy” is more concerned with being revelatory than accusatory.
So sure, her daddy did say she was fine when friends tried to take her to rehab before her “Back to Black” breakout — he did break up their family when Amy was just a girl, only to insinuate himself into her affairs once she made it big.
But Mitch Winehouse is as crucial to his daughter’s downfall as any half-baked theory that’s been thrown out about the Roman empire; the truth about both is far more complex and impossible to explain the further we’re removed from it. “Amy” excels because it provides every tool needed to draw one of many conclusions but illustrates Winehouse’s story in a way that you don’t feel the need to.
“Amy” is rated R. Running time: Two hours, 8 minutes. Four stars out of five.
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