A tragic end to a gifted singer

The British documentary Amy looks at the life and brief career of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. It shows the perils of celebrity and addiction, which in Winehouse’s case led to her death by alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27.

Her voice, even her honest, heartfelt lyrics, seem mature beyond her years. We get to witness her rise to fame and her thoughts about her art.

Directed by Asif Kapadia, who also directed the fine documentary Senna, Amy uses raw footage taken by friends and family, such as a home movie of her at age 14 singing with her longtime friend Juliette Ashby at a birthday party, as well as that of her performances in clubs and at concerts, or that of paparazzi dogging her on the street.

I’d heard of Winehouse and knew she was popular, but I had not listened to her music. My loss. The film offers many examples of her performances and superimposes the lyrics on the screen as she sings.

Her final recording was a duet single, “Body and Soul,” with Tony Bennett, who she called her idol. He later says on film that she would have been one of the great jazz singers, on par with Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. High praise indeed.

Her voice, even her honest, heartfelt lyrics, seem mature beyond her years. We get to witness her rise to fame and her thoughts about her art.

In 2003, she said, “I don’t think I’ll be famous. I don’t think I could handle it.” She was half-right.

The film shows her rise and fall with poignant detail. By the end, any viewer will feel sadness not only at the loss of a great artist but at how badly a human being was treated.

Like many young artists, she was naïve about the music business and depended on others to guide her. Many of these were in the business to make money. And many of them did.

The person who had perhaps the most profound effect on Winehouse was her father, Mitch, who left his family when Amy was 9. He reappears once she becomes famous and soon latches onto her, seeking to profit from her success. Despite his abandoning her, Amy is emotionally linked to him and generally does what he wishes. At one point, it’s clear she needs to go into rehab from her addiction to heroin and cocaine, but he won’t sign the papers because “it’s up to her.” Another time, he shows up with a camera crew in St. Lucia, where she is taking a long vacation.

If the father is one villain in the story, another is her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, an egotistical playboy who also plays on her popularity. Again, she is smitten with him, doing whatever he wants, including getting hooked on cocaine and heroin.

A third villain is a familiar one—the tabloid media. Winehouse, once she is popular, is constantly hounded by paparazzi, who wait outside her apartment to pounce on her whenever she emerges.

I don’t mean to imply that Winehouse has no responsibility for her choices or her actions. But the film unfolds this theme of the artist as a creature upon which others prey. There are many others who did care for her and helped her along in her career.

But in the end, this wasn’t enough. A wonderful artist came to a tragic end. In this powerful film, we get to see both the artistry and the tragedy.


The film is rated R for language and drug material.