*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Asif Capadia
STARS Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett
Amy Winehouse. (Photo: A24)
At the 50th Annual Grammy Awards in 2008, Amy Winehouse was the big winner, tying the record (since broken by both Beyoncé and Adele) for most Grammys won by a female artist in a single night (five, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year). But there are no winners in the new documentary Amy, a look at the rapid rise and even more rapid downfall — and death — of the British singer-songwriter. There are only losers — in a literal sense, the friends who lost their dearly beloved (such as her childhood chums), and, in a less charitable sense, the enablers who frequently looked the other way as she repeatedly turned to drugs and booze, and the villains largely responsible for her tragic lot in life.
That the bad guys tower so prominently over almost every aspect of this nonfiction feature makes Amy an especially difficult watch. It's depressing enough to witness how this young girl from London, this phenomenal talent with the sultry, soulful voice, got swallowed whole by the fame she didn't necessarily seek out but which arrived as a result of her incredible gift. It's easy for us working-class stiffs to get annoyed with celebrities who have it all and seemingly throw it away, but Amy does a better job than almost any other documentary in detailing how the pressures of being perpetually thrust into the spotlight are very real, and how someone not equipped to handle such attention — particularly someone young and inexperienced, like Amy — can quickly implode in such an otherwise enviable situation.
This is poignant material, with the outrage mostly emanating from the presence of the sleazebags who effectively co-opted her life for their own sordid pleasures. Naturally, there's the paparazzi, those opportunistic hucksters who hounded this woman's every move and took special glee in kicking her when she was down. More to the point, though, there are the two men who should have loved and protected her more than anybody else in the world but instead betrayed her at every turn: her father and her husband. It's difficult to ascertain which of the pair is the bigger scumbag (or, to put it in philosophical terms, if you had only one bullet, which of these lowlifes would you choose to put down?). Both are cut from the same cloth — heartless men who abandoned her when she was an unknown, only to reappear after she amassed her fortune and then proceeded to use her vulnerability to their own advantage. Her father Mitch Winehouse is portrayed as a vile human being, penning a tell-all book and creating a reality series that infringed upon her privacy. Yet equally despicable is Blake Fielder-Civil, a creepy womanizer who dumped her but subsequently came bouncing back into her life, eventually introducing her to hard drugs and then never allowing her any escape. Clearly, one of the central tragedies dissected in Amy is that Winehouse loved these reprehensible men to such a degree that she allowed them to continually use her and abuse her.
Amy is one grim piece of work, but there is at least one sequence that provides a welcome respite. Winehouse gets an opportunity to record a duet with Tony Bennett, and it's genuinely touching to see how she reacts to one of her longtime idols — it's pure fangirl worship, yet Bennett, ever the gentleman, treats her as his equal and doesn't hold back from showering her with compliments. It's a sweet, upbeat sequence, and it's hard not to grin as it unfolds. But like most positive things in Amy Winehouse's life, it doesn't last long, and soon we're tumbling back into the abyss.