Latest posts by Becki Zisk (see all)

Piercingly sad. Those are the first words that come to mind when I hear the name Amy Winehouse. It’s clear that “this is someone that is trying to disappear.” Her glorious rise and heartbreaking fall is movingly documented by the director of Senna.

Towards the end of her short life, Amy Winehouse’s last single, Love is a Losing Game, sounded like a private wail – as if you were spying on her sweeping the embers of a lost relationship. But in Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the singer’s life and death, the song seems to bounce back on its singer, turning the wail into an obituary.

“Played out by the band, Love is a losing hand. Though I battle blind, Love is a fate resigned.”

Though she recorded these couplets in early 2006, at least a year before becoming an international star, there’s an astonishing far-sightedness locked away in them which emerges over the course of this piercingly sad and honorable film.

Even more than her sky-scraping talent, love was Amy Winehouse’s tragic flaw – love for music, her audience, her father, her husband, and the ritual of performance itself. It’s as if love was her true passion. In Amy, you often see how that love was variously repaid with exploitation and betrayal. It’s a film that makes you newly angry and sad about losing Winehouse so early – before albums three, four, five and more, before the lifetime achievement awards and glittering retrospectives, the scandalously young boyfriends and croaking Vegas residencies.

But in doing so, it forces you to recognize the sheer selfishness of that anger and sadness. As becomes shatteringly clear, the last thing we should have asked of Winehouse was more. She clearly didn’t want anymore. You could see it in the clip of her refusing to perform while playing in Serbia. I think she drank herself stupid that night so she had an actual excuse not to perform. Sober, she didn’t want to perform.

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Kapadia makes you feel that pressure bearing down on her from the start: first lightly, as she sings in dark bars and jazz dens, spewing her soul into the audience’s laps, while always maintaining an awkward stance as if she doesn’t belong up there or deserve to be and then later, when she becomes caught in the machinery of fame, as unbearably as a thumbscrew.

 This entire story is told through archive footage and photographs – though here they are often accompanied by audio interviews with her vampirish ex-husband Blake Fielder, her father Mitch, mother Janis, other family members, and assorted close friends and associates.

Occasionally there are holes in the story, which is simply a drawback of the technique: understandably, no one wants to implicate themselves in Winehouse’s original discovery of heroin and crack cocaine, or the decision to keep her on the road when she was at her lowest point. But the gaps are largely drowned out by Winehouse’s own voice, which comes roaring back to life through open-hearted home-movie conversations with friends, frequently insightful and hilariously funny interviews with journalists and on chat shows, and above all in her lyrics.

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The songs are key – and Amy makes you realize they always were. Winehouse’s music was intensely autobiographical, and whenever it plays in the film, Kapadia runs the lyrics on screen in handwritten script, quietly drawing attention to the many contact points between her life and art. “Stronger Than Me” is a wry reflection on a feeble ex-lover, while “What Is It About Men?” picks over her father’s infidelity during her childhood. (“I felt Amy was over it pretty quick,” Mitch comments later: subtle moments like this make clear just how different the real Winehouse was from the versions that her family, management and fans believed in.)

What is clear, though, both through her father’s own words and the lyrics of the song “Rehab”, is that he was, for at least a while, a driving force behind keeping her on a lucrative concert tour and away from professional help. (No wonder Mitch, and the Winehouse family by extension, has noisily disowned the film.)

“I ain’t got the time, And if my Daddy thinks I’m fine…”: for a while those were words to live by, and later, words to die by too.

In fact, the most merciless trick in Kapadia’s arsenal is the way in which his film slowly transforms “Rehab” from a familiar hit record into a self-destructive mantra. It’s the song that signals Winehouse has “made it”, and when we first hear it, it’s accompanied by a lightning storm of flash photography.

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But as she repeatedly performs it at gigs and on chat shows, you notice her adding little vocal flourishes, perhaps in an attempt to keep things interesting. Later, at the series of unsuccessful concerts before her death, the heavy footstep of the opening bars takes on a cortège-like quality.

 So it’s perhaps wise that, towards the end of Amy, Kapadia chooses to dwell on something positive: a perfect commemoration of Winehouse’s once-in-a-blue-moon talent. It’s an encounter in Abbey Road Studios between her and Tony Bennett, to record the jazz standard “Body and Soul” for Bennett’s forthcoming album of duets. Winehouse, now 27 and three months from death, is intimidated. She paces back and forward, hemming and hawing, nerves obviously frayed to thread.

“Don’t worry, I’m the same,” says Bennett, with a crinkled smile: reassured, she breathes deeply, and they sing together, on the last song Winehouse would ever record. And for a few moments she becomes the perfect version of herself: voice low and whisky-rich, eyeshadow thick and feline, black hair bundled up in a cartoonishly beautiful heap.

“My life a wreck you’re making,” she purrs at the microphone. “You know I’m yours for just the taking. I’d gladly surrender myself to you, body and soul.” As last words go, they’re unbeatable.

“Over futile odds, And laughed at by the gods, And now the final frame, Love is a losing game.”

– Becki Zisk
Photos: Gentside, Pitchfork, Vibe