Amy doesn’t spend too much time on Winehouse’s childhood, starting off at the beginning of her music career. Scenes of Winehouse picking up a guitar and casually singing a tender jazz lament speak to her affinity for pure jazz and to her amazing amounts of raw talent. Watching her in the studio singing “Back to Black” is mesmerizing. Early interviews show her pure and frank feelings towards music, and are a painful litmus test for her physical and emotional decline—in one of her last interviews she looks barely functional, staring blankly into the distance and repeating herself multiple times without saying anything of meaning. Amy is heartbreaking, especially in its latter half as Winehouse achieves worldwide fame, is hounded relentlessly by paparazzi, and begins to descend into drug addiction and alcoholism coupled with bulimia and depression.
The “archival footage only” modus operandi Kapadia uses worked wonders for Senna because there was a wealth of video of the subject, from race broadcasts to interviews to home videos. Kapadia was able to knit those together and use newly recorded interviews to color the footage and build a beautiful portrait of Ayrton Senna as a driver and a man. But the same technique somehow feels inadequate for Amy. Rather than enhancing the portrait of the artist, there’s always the sense of something limiting about Kapadia’s signature style. Sometimes it feels like there’s just too much going on, with voiceover interviews with her friends and family over footage of her singing in the studio. Each of those are fascinating to watch and listen to separately, but overlaying them to stick to the No Talking Heads rule is restrictive here.
Sometimes, Amy gets too melodramatic for its own good, if rarely. One thing I especially loved about Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, another documentary about a genius musician who battled personal demons and died young, was its use of Nirvana songs throughout the entire film, from a lullaby rendition of “Lithium” to a chamber orchestra arrangement of “Something in the Way.” Amy spends a lot of time showing Winehouse performing and recording, even showing the lyrics as she sings in a kind of karaoke-style graphic, but there’s also a lot of original music written for the film, especially at the end. By original music, I mean in addition to the Amy Winehouse songs in the film there is also an original score composed by Antonio Pinto. I love music in movies, but in a documentary about a musician, having an additional original score is unnecessary. Her story is awful and tragic, yes, but we can understand that without cutting to slowed down footage of her staring longingly off screen while dramatic orchestral music plays in the background. Amy, for all its highlights, dips into Lifetime-esque montages sometimes.
I’ve tried my hardest not to spend this entire review comparing Amy to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Senna, but comparisons are unavoidable given the similar subject matters. Director Brett Morgen in Montage of Heck experimented with the documentary format and often delved into surrealistic painted sequences depicting formative moments in Cobain’s life, while Amy sticks to concert footage and home videos. Morgen also had mountains of old personal materials to go through and he makes such a more complete and beautiful portrait of his subject than Kapadia makes.
I really wanted to love Amy, but it just didn’t hit me as hard as either Senna or Montage of Heck. Let me put it like this. Montage of Heck feels like the definitive documentary about Kurt Cobain, like spending two hours with the man himself and really understanding who he was as an artist and a person. It’s not entirely clear whether Amy really does capture the essence of who Amy Winehouse was as a singer and a person.