When one of the most talented singers of the 21st century dies at 27, it’s normal to want to point fingers. There was her father, absent in childhood and later exploitative of her fame. There was her husband, who brought hard drugs into their home. There was the media, snapping pictures and invading very iota of her personal space. But as the outstanding documentary by Asif Kapadia conveys, Amy Winehouse was a complicated human being, torn between negative influences, artistic ambitions and her own stubborn willpower. Kapadia’s documentary Amy is an investigation, a meditation and a mesmerizing portrait of woman whose name we won’t forget anytime soon.

Introduced through handheld footage shot by a friend and manager, Amy appears like any ordinary teenager. She makes fun of herself, lights a cigarette and swears. The moment she opens her mouth however, her gifts as a singer are obvious. Performing in casual clothes at an anonymous bar, her warbling voice pours out with the ineffable spark of a born musician. She stands beside one guitarist, no need for much accompaniment. Her lyrics and the voice that carry them are the true stars of the show.

In finely crafted montages, Kapadia melds photographs of the singer with hand-written songs from her notebooks. It’s hard not to be awe-struck by how masterfully Amy translated her rawest emotions into simple yet elegant lyrics. Reminding us of her talent and its modest origins, Kapadia has done exactly what a good documentarian should. Then the record executives show up, Amy hits the road and suddenly, she’s got a finished album called (Frank) and a decent amount of media attention.

Friends, family and business partners notice her heavy drinking, her bulimia and her drug use but it seems like there’s nothing they can do. In a key moment, Amy’s manager admits that if there was ever a time to intervene, it was then, before her habits became full-blown addictions. Rehab was suggested but there was no follow through. She was bombarded by pressures and she had the drive to pursue her art, no matter the cost.

One moving scene shows Amy singing “Back to Black” in the recording studio. With headphones on, in a booth by herself, the plight of the singer is symbolized. She is as talented as she is alone. The music is turned down so that all we hear is Amy’s voice. It has the same combination of fragility and bravado as Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday. The song ends with Amy’s fading words, “And I go back to black.” It’s a beautiful song and a subtle precursor of the tragedy to come.

Kapadia skillfully blends found footage, photography, TV clips, live concerts and interviews into a highly detailed and finely produced documentary using a variety of sources. His first-person narrators include Amy’s lifelong friends, family members, bodyguards and medical experts. Each illuminates Amy from a different angle, forcing us to understand her well beyond the junkie caricature.

Amy will probably be compared to Montage of Heck, the recent documentary about Kurt Cobain. Both musicians experienced quick success, painful drug addictions and death at the premature age of 27. While Cobain’s documentary is important it is also less accessible. His music is more aggressive and his attitude on camera is remote or apathetic. Amy reveals a singer with the same unquenchable anguish but it also shows her as a charming, funny and genuine person. Before a TV appearance, she winks conspiratorially at the camera. When she wins the Best Record Grammy in 2012, she thanks her parents. In moments like these, she glows. One almost understands why no one slapped the whiskey out of her hands.

Amy isn’t perfect. It spends a lot of time dissecting the evolution of her drug use. Thankfully, it moves away from this exposé tone when Amy returns to the studio to sing with Tony Bennett. Star-struck and self-critical, she falters in their duet. She sighs with frustration, holding herself to the impossibly high standards that great artists do. In Amy, one recognizes a legend. Life, with its Grammy awards, beach vacations and million dollars paychecks, was either too much for her, or not enough. We’ll never know for sure, but Asif Kapadia’s Amy takes us one step closer to the woman she was before she faded back to black.

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