It’s impossible to describe Amy Winehouse’s voice. Crackly, crimson, fractured and sultry: That’s just the scratchy surface. “Amy,” the new documentary from director Asif Kapadia, delves into the jazz chanteuse’s troubled life and early death, but never forgets to show us Winehouse’s talent and craft—and her gentleness.
“Amy” plays like a defense brief. There are villains: Winehouse’s father Mitchell, her husband Blake, and the paparazzi. The movie takes Winehouse’s own narrative at face value, and it’s a starkly old-fashioned one: When my father left our family I lost my compass. I need someone to stop me from hurting myself. I need my daddy. Winehouse’s first big hit had her upbraiding her man with, “You should be stronger than me!”, and that search for a man to be her strength continues throughout the version of her life we see here. If this movie were a slogan it would be, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs water.”
Winehouse more or less begs to be told what to do. The lyrics about how she doesn’t have to go to rehab (no, no, no) if her Daddy thinks she’s fine turn out to be literal truth, with Winehouse skipping out on treatment because her father thought she didn’t need it. Late in the movie we find out that when she was a young teen she told her mother about her cool new diet, where she ate whatever she wanted and just vomited it up again. Her mom shrugged this off, after which she told her father the same thing. It’s hard to escape the idea that she went to him because her mother hadn’t given her the discipline she was seeking. At one point her mother recalls Amy telling her, “You should be tougher [with me], mum.” And a bodyguard gives the diagnosis, “She needed someone to say no. She needed support.”
This (possible) longing for discipline coexisted with a charming bluntness and cheekiness. One person describes Winehouse as “gobby”—mouthy—and so she is, in the best way. Early on we see her abjectly and hilariously appalled by a dumb interview: She messes with her lip ring, she bugs out her eyes, she drawls and stares. Amy Winehouse is having none of your nonsense—unless you’re a man, in which case it’s an open bar.
We see a lot of Winehouse the worker, and Winehouse the worshiper of jazz. We see her influences, like Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. Her voice is extraordinary, but watching this movie I was struck by her talent as a lyricist. The words to “Stronger than Me” and “You Know I’m No Good” are unexpected and hard-hitting. There’s a beautiful, extended late passage where she duets with Tony Bennett. Her humility shines through here. She’s so hard on herself, and so awestruck by the chance to sing with her hero.
Her pianist offers the verdict, “She had one of the most emotional relationships to music. Like she needed music. Like it was a person.” Music is her therapist: She says, “Lots of people suffer depression. Not everyone can pick up a guitar for an hour and feel better.”
This is a story with an ending everybody knows. Amy Winehouse, with her deer-face and her doe-eyes and her colt-legs, Bambi’ing around on unsteady high heels; Amy Winehouse, smiley and stunned in the flash of a thousand cameras, each one with four more behind it like the teeth of a shark; Amy Winehouse on camera drinking, smoking crack, showing up with her arm in a cast, with her slashed-up boyfriend. One friend sums it up: “They weren’t happy souls when they were high.”
Kapadia makes a lot of smart choices. The way he cuts between “Back in Black” with full instrumentation and just Winehouse’s voice is a gut-punch, as are the many moments when the paparazzi’s cameras become blinding. There’s a moment when the voice-over is describing Blake smuggling Amy heroin in rehab, and the screen shows her flashing a sudden, secret smile.
Antonio Pinto did the original music. Some of this is saccharine or melodramatic, but the final theme is lovely. And Kapadia knows to let us end with just Winehouse singing, so heartbreaking that you’ll sit through the credits with your eyes closed, just letting her voice break over you.
Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) sums her up as “edgy and sincere.” The edginess got her the magazine covers. This movie does a lot to honor the sincerity.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.