Documentary Of The Month: Amy

A frank new film on anguished Amy Winehouse refuses to sugar any pills

In Senna, the 2010 documentary about Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna directed by Asif Kapadia, there is one shot more gut-wrenching than the others – the driver’s view from Senna’s cockpit as he competed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, in which he hit a wall and suffered fatal injuries. With every bend, you wondered if this was the moment. Or this one. Or this one. Needless to say, it was terrifying. And electrifying.

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In Amy, Kapadia’s new film about the tragic, short life of pop/jazz singer Amy Winehouse, there is also a single spine-chilling scene. Winehouse is alone in a recording booth, singing the title track of her magnum opus, 2006’s Back to Black, while producer Mark Ronson looks on. We can’t hear anything other than her vocals, and as she reaches the final bars, she sings the word “black” increasingly softly, mournfully, sadly.

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Kapadia has a knack for finding archive footage, piecing together a life story without seeming to intrude too heavily: letting it, and the voices of those who knew his subject, tell the tale. Winehouse was a startling musical prodigy with a voice like a sultry alley cat, who soared and then crumbled in the spotlight as bad advice led to increasingly poor decisions, including using heroin and crack. For a few years, we gawped at her silly beehive and emaciated frame, and then she died from alcohol poisoning in 2011, aged 27.

And then we were ashamed to have stood by and witnessed the inevitable demise of someone desperately ill, physically and mentally, and Kapadia certainly twists the knife. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its case for Winehouse as a jazz great: not a trashy pop phenomenon, but a musician with real, irreplaceable artistry in her soul. And that loss is the public tragedy. Or as Winehouse herself said to Ronson in the recording booth that day, as her song fades to nothing, “It’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?”

Amy is out on 3 July

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