In an early scene in the well-crafted music documentary Amy, we see home video footage of its subject Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” as a teenager among friends and family. Her raw talent is undeniable but more revealing than her sultry voice is the charm and vibrancy that she exudes during her singing. It serves as a stark contrast to the Amy Winehouse that we all saw when the cameras of the world were rolling, whose public persona would come to be one synonymous with drug addiction and alcoholism. Her early death at the young age of 27 was not wholly unexpected but it doesn’t make her tragic story any less worthy of thoughtful examination.
Director Asif Kapadia has crafted a fitting eulogy that neither absolves Amy of her personal vices nor points obvious fingers as to who is to blame for her untimely demise. There were a litany of bad influences, some larger than others, that could have contributed to her death but the film doesn’t take sides in trying to single one aspect out as the main cause. She’s portrayed not as a saint or a sinner but rather as a human being, a young vulnerable girl who was fully unequipped to deal with the rising demands associated with pop stardom.
Though she was most notable for her stylized jazz vocals, this movie does a fantastic job at highlighting other sides of her artistic and musical talents as well. Her handwritten lyrics, offered up as subtitles during scenes in which she’s performing, are given new layers of poignancy when accompanied with corresponding accounts from her personal life. She is also shown to be a very competent guitarist too, performing some of her earlier songs on either acoustic or electric guitar while also singing in her trademark tone.
Perhaps most saddening, we also get visceral glimpses as to what could have been had she continued to live on and keep making music. Accounts from rapper Mos Def and Roots drummer ?uestlove detail the artistic thrust and ambition that Amy had, as evidenced by proposed projects and unfinished song ideas that could have launched the singer into newfound artistic territory. We will never know what else Amy had in store but the fact that her spirit is still well represented in today’s pop music (Adele and Lady Gaga, among others, cite her as a major influence) is a reminder that some talents are truly timeless.