The death of Amy Winehouse, in July 2011, at age 27, was one of the first great tragedies of 21st-century pop music, an event that emphasized the jarring contrast between the fragility of human lives and the half-comforting, half-haunting permanence of recorded music. Once an artist is lost to us, the music left behind somehow changes color and tone, often becoming more beautiful rather than less.
To hear Winehouse sing in Asif Kapadia's sensitive and extraordinary documentary Amy is to open yourself to an unsettling rush of grief and joy. Kapadia has conducted interviews with key people in Winehouse's life, weaving them through performance and interview footage as well as personal videos and intimate stills. The result is a surprisingly seamless biographical documentary.
Kapadia presents Winehouse looking her best: We see her performing on the Late Show With David Letterman, a glorious vision with Maria Callas eyes and Ronnie Spector hair, wearing a polka-dotted supper-club dress that makes her somewhat thoughtlessly placed tattoos look more glamorous, not less. But what really counts is the care Kapadia takes in showing Winehouse in her lowest moments: There are some disturbing stills where she's gaunt from drug and alcohol abuse -- and the eating disorders that plagued her. There's also footage of a disastrous concert in Belgrade, the month before Winehouse died; she took the stage, drunk, and then refused to sing.
Kapadia neither downplays nor sensationalizes this material; it's as if he's showing us these images only for as long as he can bear to look at them himself. Even if the last third of Amy is painful to watch, Kapadia never loses sight of the human being behind the mythology.