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Fade to Black

Asif Kapadia’s new documentary on Amy Winehouse captures the young woman behind the tabloid tragedy
Musician Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning July 23, 2011, at the age of 27.

Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, Amy, does what nothing else could when Amy Winehouse was here, and so famous  — not the Rolling Stone interviews, the profiles, the photos, and definitely not the tabloids, the gossip, the cruel jokes. It turns Winehouse back into a person, letting her history speak for itself while quietly painting a damning picture of celebrity culture, particularly when that culture turns its gaze on young women.

Amy is full of home video footage, as if never a moment went by when Winehouse wasn’t on film. We see her as a sassy North London teen, hanging out with her lifelong friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, whose voices crack as they remember the later years. Winehouse was sharp, funny, endearing; her first manager, Nick Shymansky, describes her ability to make a person feel like the most important person in the world, then take it away, then give it back. 

Winehouse’s first recording contract seems like an inevitability once label execs hear her sing. There’s no formula for fame, no equation apparent in the lineup of handlers and producers. There’s just Winehouse’s voice and the way people respond to it. And there’s the heartbreak that led to Back to Black, written when her all-consuming, off-and-on relationship with Blake Civil-Fielder was at an ebb. 

Civil-Fielder and Winehouse’s father, Mitch, are reportedly unhappy with Kapadia’s film, which is unsurprising given that they seem to stand by as Winehouse spirals downwards. Already a weed smoker, a drinker, a partier, Winehouse goes deeper with Civil-Fielder, into harder drugs and longer binges.

As her star rises, her previously absent father begins to be more present, more pushy. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Winehouse’s best friend describes trying to steal Winehouse’s passport so she can’t go on tour; she’s a wreck, and she needs help. The women run into a wall of men shaking their heads. She has to go. She has a job to do. 

While Amy is a thoughtful, intimate portrait of an imperfect, gloriously talented woman, it’s also an indictment of not just celebrity culture but the men who run it. Apart from her closest friends, Winehouse is surrounded, mocked, enabled, endlessly photographed by men. (Kapadia cleverly uses paparazzi photos — often many from the same moment — to illustrate the demand on Winehouse.)

There are people who can carry that, who can keep walking with head held high, but Amy contains another reminder: Winehouse was so young. In a youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that 24 is young; entire careers can be over by that age. Winehouse’s voice and lyrics were mature beyond her years, but Kapadia won’t let that illusion stand; his film constantly strips away the mythology of fame, exploring the life behind the magazine covers.

Amy is difficult to watch at times; you want to pick her up, bandage her scratches and push away the people making demands on her time. Toward the end, there’s a scene in London where Winehouse — clean, at that point — watches the Grammys, waiting to see how many of her six nominations will turn into wins. When Tony Bennett, a longtime idol, comes out to introduce the winner, Winehouse’s eyes go wide, hopeful. When Bennett says her name, the look on her face is like nothing else in the movie. It’s the expression of a person who got the best news and the worst news of her life at the same time. You won the lottery. You are trapped.

Amy opens Friday, July 10, at the Bijou Metro.