British filmmaker Asif Kapadia has made a career out of piecing other people's home video into insightful feature documentaries. With Amy, Kapadia manages to assemble a wealth of worthwhile material and a far deeper understanding of the seemingly overexposed Amy Winehouse.

Kapadia includes the all-too-familiar sight of Winehouse staggering out of limos. There's no getting around the fact substance abuse led to her early demise at 27. Nonetheless, in the footage from friends, family and associates, a captivating person emerges.


88 Cast: Documentary featuring archival footage of and interviews with Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett, Questlove, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Yasiin Bey, Blake Fielder-Civil, Salaam Remi, Janis Winehouse, Nick Shymansky

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: R for language and drug material

Running time: 128 minutes

The movie begins with a mundane clip of a teen girl's birthday in North London. Before it becomes easy to wonder what's so special about this yawn-inducing YouTube reject, the camera shakily wanders toward a brunette girl who makes "Happy Birthday to You" sound anything but dull or routine.

Of course, it's Winehouse, but it's a jolt to see her as a vibrant, mischievous, even giddy young woman. The pallor and the signs of ruin that drenched gossip sites and tabloids in the years to come are nowhere to be seen. The words "hale" or "alert" didn't apply to her in the caricature that emerged of her later in her life.

In the early clips, Winehouse enthusiastically steps up to a microphone and demonstrates formidable chops and an astonishingly deep understanding of jazz and R&B. Questlove of The Roots, an accomplished scholar of music himself, recalls receiving calls from Winehouse where she introduced him to new artists and tunes he'd never heard before. Obviously, the breathtaking performances she gave on her albums Frank and Back to Black weren't flukes.

The first signs of trouble emerge when Winehouse admits she has no interest in being a pop star and would be happiest playing intimate gigs in jazz venues. While Winehouse loved writing and performing, fame seems like a distant concept to her.

Perhaps she'd still be among the living if that had been her fate.

Growing up, she had problems that life in the spotlight did nothing to remedy. Her beloved grandmother died shortly before she had hits with "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good," and her father Mitch Winehouse was hardly around when she was young.

Curiously, he was happy to appear in front of reality show cameras as his daughter was trying to get away from the spotlight long enough to detox.

Winehouse, who was already small and wiry, was also bulimic. With her fragile constitution, drugs and alcohol were far more lethal for her than others. It also didn't help that her manager doubled as her promoter. As her need to get away from drugs became more dire, so did the demand for her lucrative live shows.

Add to these forces a marriage that seemed to encourage fatal indulgences, and it seems Winehouse may have been doomed from the start. Kapadia reveals that Winehouse, knowing she had a problem, would briefly kick the habits. It's almost endearing to watch her nervously recording a duet with Tony Bennett, whom she idolized. Bennett comes off as a complete gentleman as Winehouse finally nails a take both of them can live with.

Kapadia has collected a wide variety of people to recount their stories of her, but he never allows them to speak directly on camera. With multiple witnesses, Kapadia helps prevent viewers from unfairly putting all the blame on her father or her manager. Their memories contradict each other, but Kapadia manages to keep a sense of order.

MovieStyle on 07/10/2015

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