Posted by Joel Copling on June 30, 2015

The footage that opens "Amy" pretty much sums up what the rest of the movie proceeds to support when it comes to describing Amy Winehouse's life: We see her and two friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, as teenagers singing a birthday tune for another friend; Amy outshines both of the others, whose voices trail off to allow her to solo the thing until its end. And it's just a simple birthday tune, but the point is clear. This girl, who would go on to become a world-famous singer whom the BBC labeled the "pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation" after her untimely death in July 2011, immediately stood out from whatever crowd of which she was part. And it's no surprise now, listening to any of her songs (whether it be a ballad or two about lost love or a poppier ditty about rehab), that she did so.

Director Asif Kapadia's documentary captures the essence of this woman and her considerable legacy. A lot of that ability to avoid hero-worship comes from the subject herself, whose no-nonsense attitude was ingrained in her from a childhood marred unexpectedly by a nasty divorce between her parents (Mitchell, the father, was unfaithful to Janis, the mother, and this, Amy once reasoned, gave her free reign to rebel). She picked up a smoking habit, an outfit overhaul, and a recklessness with boys that would dictate her later disposition as someone who just didn't care about external influences or the opinions of people with a point to make.

This is most evident in the film's funniest moment, an interview in which the journalist compares her to another contemporary artist of the moment (Dido); Amy just simply isn't having it, and her exasperated sarcasm of feigning interest is part of what's so intriguing and refreshing about this figure. She had contempt for the popular scene as a singer/songwriter type of the traditional persuasion, dropping her original record company simply because of their history of backing the Spice Girls in the late 1990's and generally attempting from the start to separate herself from a Britney/Christina image. She wrote her own songs (lyrics of which we see on a series of subtitles when the film highlights the musician's biggest hits) from experience, and that sort of ingenuity in an era of studio control is also refreshing.

That image splinters when she runs off with Blake Fielder-Civil, who would become her husband and introduce her to crack cocaine. The drugs became, predictably, an obsession and form of addiction for the singer, ultimately leading to a series of health scares that led to rehabilitation and sobriety (Unfortunately, Amy was also an alcholic, and at the time of her death, 45 times the legal limit of alcohol was impregnating her bloodstream). Kapadia doesn't sugarcoat these forays into drug abuse, allowing the film to avoid the type of blind hagiography of which a less expertly crafted documentary would certainly have been capable. "Amy" is a moving account that reminds its audience that the best of us are often also the most tortured.

Film Information

A documentary directed by Asif Kapadia.

Rated R (language, drug material).

128 minutes.

Released in New York and Los Angeles on July 3, 2015.