'Amy' documentary looks squarely in the face of Amy Winehouse's demons

In June 2011, Amy Winehouse performed in Serbia for what would be her final concert.

By then Winehouse's struggles with drugs and alcohol had made her a punchline for late-night hosts and a choice target for gossip rags and relentless paparazzi. Kicking off what was supposed to be a European tour, the Belgrade show is remembered only for showing how far she had unraveled.

As seen a gripping new documentary, "Amy," from director Asif Kapadia, Winehouse is disheveled, erratic and obviously inebriated. Eyes heavily glazed, she stumbles through much of her performance and slurs whatever lyrics she remembers. As the crowd angrily boos and shouts for her to sing, a defeated Winehouse is seen seated behind her band, seemingly disconnected to her surroundings.

A month later she was dead from alcohol poisoning at age 27.

The film, which opens Friday, is an intimate, unflinching gaze into the perils of celebrity and addiction and how Winehouse — who was already fragile from a troubled upbringing — fed off the two.

But aside from tracing her life, "Amy" also offers unparalleled insight into how her short discography reveals a road map to her troubles and pain.

Maybe it's because her rise to fame and tragic death were so close together, or maybe because her struggles were so public they grew to overshadow her music, but Winehouse isn't often revered as a trailblazer. But she was.

Had it not been for Winehouse, it's unlikely Americans would have embraced the heart-wrenching throwback soul of fellow Grammy winners Adele and Sam Smith. Her producer, Mark Ronson, probably wouldn't have reached the same heights with this year's chart-topping Bruno Mars collaboration, "Uptown Funk," and we may have never seen the surge of British pop-soul artists on the charts, including Jessie Ware, Jessie J and James Blake.

With just two albums — her jazz-influenced 2003 debut, "Frank," and the retro-dipped "Back to Black" from 2006 that broke her to the mainstream and yielded multiple Grammys — Winehouse's catalog isn't as ripe with posthumous material to mine for insight into her process like tragic figures such as Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston.

But where those acts are credited with breaking ground in their respective genres,Winehouse's narrative has largely remained focused on her very public downward spiral.

Kapadia's decision to lean on archival footage instead of retrospective video interviews (much like his award-winning 2010 documentary, "Senna") takes the viewer deeper into her artistry — and the pain that steered it.

In the film, an early glimpse of her extraordinary talent comes as a 14-year-old Winehouse sings "Happy Birthday," her voice as powerful then as when we heard her years later.

While her voice — jazzy, soulful and steeped with sadness — instantly dazzled listeners, "Amy" offers a rare look at Winehouse in the act of creating her music.

When she was dating the older man who inspired a bulk of "Frank," we see glimpses of them as a couple, and her unhappiness with the relationship comes through.

"You should be stronger than me/ You've been here seven years longer than me/ Don't you know you supposed to be the man/ Not pale in comparison to who you think I am," she sings as the lyrics are superimposed on the footage.

It was always clear that the sorrow that filled her music came from experience, and "Amy" doesn't shy from Winehouse's demons — the depression from growing up in a broken home and her struggles with eating disorders as well as alcohol, men, drugs and stage fright. And fame only magnified it all.

Her breakout album, "Back to Black," is the portrait of a life slipping away. Though we all enjoyed her defiant smash, "Rehab," it was a deep cry for help. It's difficult to hear the lyrics, "I ain't got the time, and my daddy thinks I'm fine," after "Amy" allows us to also hear her father really telling her she didn't have to get treatment if she didn't want to, despite her obvious issues.

Winehouse's story was always tragic, but as the film — and her life — grew progressively darker her music became that much more meaningful.

Although I've been a longtime fan of Winehouse — her death devastating me in much the same way as the loss of Aaliyah, Jackson and Houston — unpacking her work in "Amy" forced me to reconsider the impression she left on pop music and whether some of the sadness in her life could have been avoided.

But then again, if it wasn't for the heartache or her vices, "Black to Black" may have never happened, and Winehouse would have just continued to perform in small clubs and cut jazz and soul records.

The world might not have gotten the chance to discover her — but she might still be here.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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