The narrative beats of Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse are eminently familiar, tracing a musician’s rise to fame and the subsequent downfall fueled by substance abuse. Like a number of showbiz stories, Amy is possessed by a heartbreaking sense of inevitability.
Nonetheless, Kapadia — best known for 2010’s Formula 1 doc Senna — transcends the typical with an unusually and uncomfortably intimate collage of almost entirely pre-existing footage, structured around audio-only interviews with collaborators, friends, and romantic partners.
Home video of Winehouse goofing around with childhood friends bleeds into on-air interviews promoting her 2003 debut album Frank, which gives way to encroaching paparazzi footage, the frenzy surrounding her drug and alcohol abuse eclipsing the considerable attention given to her music. One minute, she’s appearing on late-night television programs and winning five Grammys; the next, she’s fodder for tabloid covers and Jay Leno cheap shots.
Amy depicts Winehouse’s alcoholism, drug use, and bulimia as a ravaging spiral that features almost no build-up. It doesn’t merely accompany her fame; it’s like an outcropping of it, as dramatic and fast-moving as her sudden stardom. Kapadia makes the harsh realities of this brand of fame deeply felt, cutting together a permeable blend of private and public footage, effectively making the distinction irrelevant. If the resulting portrait feels problematic or predatory, well, it probably should. Kapadia implicitly implicates a ravenous celebrity-obsessed culture while also delving into Winehouse’s troubled personal history.
Much of that history is tied to her father, Mitchell Winehouse, who has expressed his displeasure with how he’s portrayed in the film. Obviously, reality is complicated, but in a film full of upsetting moments — visibly deteriorating health, incoherent performances, recovery setbacks — there might not be one more distressing than the sight of Mitchell goading his daughter to take a picture with fans, as she weakly protests about the rolling cameras for a reality show he commissioned. The breakdown between the public/private barrier isn’t merely Kapadia’s filmmaking construction.
Aesthetically, the film stumbles in its frequent segments of Winehouse performing, adding fussy unfurling subtitles of song lyrics to shots of studio sessions and live performances, transforming the film into something resembling a corny YouTube fan video. And that’s mostly antithetical to what Amy is all about, a document that’s more unsettling than memorializing.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that runs the quality gamut thanks to the variety of source material used. Some shots, like the newly filmed aerial establishing shots of Winehouse’s neighborhood, are sharp and clear, while audience-filmed shots of gigs, archive footage of early 2000s TV episodes and consumer camcorder video can be riddled with artifacting, compression, and plenty of other understandable issues. Overall, the presentation is perfectly fine given the source limitations. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track presents solid audio performance of Winehouse’s songs when the footage allows for it.
There are quite a few extras on the disc, including an audio commentary with Kapadia, editor Chris King, and producer James Gay-Rees; interview outtakes with a number of the participants; deleted scenes; acoustic performance; a brief EPK making-of; and a couple trailers.