Back in 1969, John Lennon — then on his media-hounded honeymoon with Yoko Ono — penned “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” with the chorus, “The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.” It seems a bit over-the-top, until you recall how his next decade unraveled: Ono was vilified as the “witch” who broke up The Beatles, the president of the United States actively tried to get Lennon deported or arrested, and finally a deranged fan who idolized him shot him for “selling out.”

I thought of Lennon’s song while watching “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s wonderful, tragic documentary of troubled British singer Amy Winehouse, who died from alcohol poisoning in 2011 at that cursed rock-star age of 27. We all have an image in our heads of the wildly self-destructive Winehouse, dazed, perhaps bloodied, her makeup running, and we have to ask ourselves: Why do we have that image of mad-as-a-hatter Amy, and so little sympathy or understanding for how this incredibly gifted woman wound up in such a dark place?

“Amy” shows us the vibrant and all-too-vulnerable person behind the tabloid caricature, and will make you hate yourself for ever having laughed at Jay Leno or the many other comedians who used her as the butt of a cheap joke.

Run Time 128 mins
Language English
Opens JULY 16

“Amy,” like Kapadia’s previous doc “Senna,” completely avoids the use of talking heads and gives the screen over entirely to Winehouse, who appears in concert and TV footage, but also in loads of intimate cellphone videos, studio sessions and the like. Interviews with friends and confidantes appear in voice-over only; their use of the past tense clashes with the Amy we see, so very much alive. Just look at her at age 14, still a child as she gnaws on a lollipop, yet when she sings “Happy Birthday,” it’s clear she already had that voice and the raw charisma that dissolves the distance between you and her.

Kapadia tracks Amy’s pre-fame days quite well, focusing on her love of jazz and her relationships with manager Nick Shymansky — a slightly older friend who was blagging his way into the music biz — and her parents, who separated when she was 13, an event that left her on antidepressants for a while. Looking back on it, an 18-year-old Amy says she never really felt depressed: “I just felt funny sometimes. I think it’s a musician thing, that’s why I write music.” (Take a sad song and make it better, as Sir Paul once said.) She also states, presciently, “I don’t think I’m going to be famous. I don’t think I could handle it.”

The film progresses through Amy’s breakthrough success with the “Back to Black” album, her stormy relationship with lover Blake Fielder (who introduced her to heroin) and her formerly absent father Mitch’s new role in her life. Things are turbulent, but it becomes clear that Amy’s blessing and curse are one and the same: She feels too deeply.

A star like Amy Winehouse shines because she is real. In an age of auto-tuned, image-crafted pop stars performing songs written by committee, she wrote her own intensely personal songs, and relied on her real voice. The film has a beautiful clip of an early audition, just Amy and her acoustic guitar. Her image — Ronnie Spector meets biker white trash — was also her own. So too was the prickly attitude, which the media loved to egg on.

Given time and space, she might have blossomed, but she got chewed up and spat out by the celebrity machine. The bulimia and substance abuse seem like ways of crashing the program when no one will let you say “no” because too much money’s riding on it.

Near the film’s end, Kapadia lingers on a haunting shot, with Amy sitting by the side of the stage, cloaked in crimson light. Kapadia pulls in close and finds a smile. A smile, on this stage in Belgrade, as tens of thousands of people are booing and jeering her for being unable or unwilling to perform. Her career is over and she knows it, and look at that face. She just wanted out.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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