When the podcast Serial was released in October 2014, it brought with it a surprising resurgence in the public's fascination with the true-crime genre. From the cheap newsprint magazines of the early 20th century to more modern fare such as the television show Snapped, Americans have always been intrigued by the sordidness of other peoples' lives, especially when that sordidness leads to a tragic end.
So it is surprising that Asif Kapadia's new Amy Winehouse documentary Amy is at its most interesting not when we watch the talented young singer sink into the abyss of drug-and-alcohol abuse that would lead to her untimely death, but as we attempt to find the person who is most to blame for her demise.
The choices are, sadly, plenty. First among them is Amy's husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, a club promoter who the singer had the misfortune of meeting at an impressionable age and found herself drawn to like a moth to a flame. In a film full of infuriating moments caught on home video, perhaps none cut so close to the bone as when Amy attempts to get clean at a rehab facility. In the clip, she begs Fielder-Civil to leave her alone while he hounds her with the same hacky, "I guess she'll have to change the lyrics to 'Rehab' now" joke that everyone heard during the last few months of her life.
It becomes clear through the recorded evidence that the singer spent her life attempting to fill the void that her father Mitchell Winehouse had left when he abandoned Amy at a young age. Upon her rise to stardom, he came back into her life in a business capacity, only to single-handedly stop an intervention attempt early in her career in its tracks. Later Mr. Winehouse brings a BBC camera crew along with him when he visits her at a private rehab facility toward the end of her life.
What director Asif Kapadia has done with Amy is take the singer's legacy on as a reclamation project of sorts. Years after her sad demise, Winehouse's name is used as an easy punch line by open-mic comedians every night of the week throughout the world. But by watching events in the performer's life unfold before our very eyes, we gain extraordinary insight into the inner demons that led to her death.
Kapadia, director of the phenomenal 2010 documentary Senna, was given access to private filmed material from friends of Winehouse from throughout her life. Watching a young pre-stardom Amy sing "Happy Birthday" to a 14-year-old friend, it's evident that even at that early age just how talented she was. And this talent is even on display during later footage, taken well after the drugs and the paparazzi had done their damage to the chanteuse. Altogether, the clips that make up Kapadia's film reveal an unguarded portrait of the creativity that her fans still miss today. Amy is quite simply a masterwork and a documentary that will be spoken of reverently during awards season.
While everyone knows how the story ends, Amy gives the viewer one last glimpse at a turbulent soul whose influence will live on well past our own lives end. Boiled down, the documentary is the story of one person's pursuit of a love that she sadly never found.