In the opening minutes of Asif Kapadia's superb documentary, we see Amy Winehouse at her most innocent; 16 years old, a bit "gobby" as she later describes this self, singing Happy Birthday to a friend. The alley cat voice is already there. The innocence won't be for long, and neither will Winehouse.
Hailed as one of the most unique musical talents in years, Winehouse also is among the most tragic. Dead at age 27 of alcohol poisoning, it's a wonder something else didn't claim her before that. She was hurt by the ones she loved, turning that pain into searing lyrics Kapadia cursively provides on screen while she sings. And, oh, how that woman could sing.
Kapadia traces the late jazz-pop singer's troubled life and tragic flameout with an intimacy possible only in recent years. Like the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, this movie's foundation is video footage of unflattering behavior filmed by, or with the consent of, the subject herself. Consider it another by-product of video narcissism; what is fun capturing can later be evidence, or for these doomed musicians, an epitaph.
In some moments, Amy feels like another intrusion on the singer's privacy, like the gossip vultures circling her drug and alcohol binges, awaiting her 2011 death. Those uncomfortable moments are far outweighed by sympathetic ones, when the bee-hived diva finds tiny pleasures along the way, a lollipop or a jab at a friend. Or the healthier, happier Winehouse who didn't mind getting bored with vapid interviewers. And the little girl, agog once when her idol Tony Bennett calls her name at the Grammys, and again when they duet.
Like its subject, Amy doesn't hold back anything, which explains her father's disapproval since he comes across as a compelling factor in his daughter's downfall. Same goes for her ex-husband Blake Fielder, who both enables her addictions and disables her chance of recovery by taking off with another woman. Great songs result — Rehab, Back to Black, Tears Dry on Their Own — but at what cost?