The documentary “Amy” opens with 14-year-old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” at a party with friends.
Amid the raw footage, shot sometime in 1997, some things are immediately apparent: Her voice, which imitated Marilyn Monroe’s serenading President Kennedy, was already arresting — smoky and soulful — and her personality was already radiant, a mix of confidence, defiance, insecurity and wit.
For the next two hours, director Asif Kapadia expertly tells Winehouse’s tragic tale using footage from smartphones, video cameras, TV shows and other sources, weaving in concert performances, award ceremonies, publicity interviews, Winehouse’s apartments and hotel rooms, and bits from backstage and the back seats of cars and limousines.
Instead of on-camera interviews with her family, friends and associates, Kapadia imposes the audio of interviews over those scenes, capturing pivotal moments and introducing viewers to some of the most influential people in her life. Most important were her two childhood friends who were loyal till the end, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and Nick Shymansky, who was 19 when he started managing a 16-year-old Winehouse.
Viewers also meet Winehouse’s mother, Janis, who raised Amy as a single mom and who discloses her daughter’s ongoing battle with bulimia, and Blake Fielder-Civil, her future husband, her drug enabler who would play the Sid to her Nancy, the Courtney Love to her Kurt Cobain.
He was also the inspiration for “Back to Black,” a devastated Winehouse’s response to his leaving her for a former girlfriend: “You went back to what you knew / So far removed from all that we went through / And I tread a troubled track / My odds are stacked / I’ll go back to black.”
“Amy” is a sad, uncomfortable film. It portrays Winehouse’s descent into that darkness. We see her at her funniest and most charming but also at her most vulnerable and embarrassing, like a show in Belgrade that was canceled because she was too incapacitated to perform, stumbling around the stage unable to remember not just lyrics but her band members’ names.
By then celebrity had become too much for her to handle; she was chum for the schools of ravenous paparazzi that pursued her everywhere, relentlessly, and a punching bag for late-night comics whose jokes now sound callous and mean.
Winehouse had moments of sobriety and clarity, and we see them in “Amy”: in 2006 when she went to New York to record her second album, “Back to Black,” which made her a star; and during the 2008 Grammy Awards, when Winehouse accepted the record of the year award by satellite from London, where she’d retreated to avoid the hype and glitz of Los Angeles. In her acceptance speech, she thanked Fielder-Civil, who was in jail for assault.
“Amy” also includes her March 2011 session recording the jazz classic “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett. The footage reveals Winehouse’s joy and deep doubts about recording with one of her singing idols.
She balked and apologized after each of the first few takes. Bennett comforted and encouraged her until she nailed it. He compared her to Dinah Washington, another of her idols, and hailed her as one of the most natural jazz singers he had ever heard. After her death he would lament not telling her to “slow down; you’re too important.”
Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, alone in her London home, in July 2011. Without remorse or a shred of dignity, the paparazzi harangued her until the end, shooting images of her bagged body being transported to the ambulance.
It was an ignoble and tragic end to a life rife with talent and potential, a life that had accrued the importance that Bennett saw within. “Amy” documents all those virtues, but it ultimately succeeds because it shows that behind all that was a vulnerable woman with a good heart who couldn’t be saved from herself.
(At Barrywoods, Palace, Town Center.)