Amy Winehouse really was a musical force of nature. Her voice and her songwriting were incredibly special. As Tony Bennett says in this excellent documentary, she was right up there with Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. But it was hard to keep that talent in perspective as she very publicly spiralled out of control in the years preceding her death.
The drugs, alcohol, wayward husband, the walks home in the early hours wearing bloodied shoes and her signature beehive askew – it all created a picture of tragic chaos that made everyone forget what made Winehouse famous in the first place.
And that’s what makes this documentary special.
Director Asif Kapadia (who also made Senna, one of the best films about racing car drivers you’ll ever see) has managed to uncover the version of Amy Winehouse we should remember, while keeping the context of her demise in the balance.
He convinced those who were closest to her – her best friends, family, ex-husband, and collaborators – to talk in an impressively unguarded fashion, and has meshed those interviews together with a wonderful collection of footage, both private and public, in such a precise and cinematic way, that even though we already know the story of Winehouse, we experience it afresh.
The highlights include a hilarious holiday video of young Amy pretending to be a Spanish house boy, and giving her best friend Lauren a very satirical tour of their apartment, clips of early interviews where she crackles with wit and energy and, of course, some tear-inducing footage of her recording Back To Black with Mark Ronson.
Keeping the interviews to audio-only somehow gives them greater intimacy, and the observations made about her deteriorating health, both physical and mental, and the fact that nobody seemed prepared to stop it, only become more chilling.
It offers plenty to those who weren’t necessarily great Winehouse fans, too – a cautionary tale of celebrity culture and the ruinous power of the media, and a gentle reminder that society really should look after people like Winehouse as cultural treasures, rather than tear them down for the sake of tomorrow’s tabloid headlines.