Movie review: Winehouse documentary "Amy" is heartbreakingly perfect

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

To fully appreciate the achievement of the Amy Winehouse documentary "Amy"- in my book, the best music documentary in a decade - you have to appreciate all the ways it could have gone terribly wrong.

With the young, tragic talent at its core, it could have been so reverential it turned to fluff. It could have also overplayed Winehouse's turn in life into a "what a waste" aspect.

"Amy" reaches an unlikely balance. It certainly doesn't gloss over the darkest days in the young singer's life, but it also tells a tale of a young woman who achieved a fame she never wanted and was ill-prepared to adjust to it. For a movie that could have been neither, it's both honest and loving.

"She was a very old soul in a very young body." This was a common assessment of Winehouse when the young London-born singer blessed with a once-in-a-generation voice started out. With her 2003 debut album Frank, she brought old-school jazz to a new generation. Then came the massive success of the more crossover Back to Black, a success that contributed to the fact that Amy didn't live long enough to match that old soul.

Director Asif Kapadia ("Senna") works from an amazing wealth of archival footage and interviews to paint a portrait that is remarkably candid. The rare personal footage is heartbreaking - even more affective than HBO's Kurt Cobain doc "Montage of Heck." Other footage shot by the omnipresent paparazzi that filled Amy's tumultuous late life makes us realize that we are, in a way, watching a snuff film.

As we know how this story ends, hearing Winehouse make eerily foreshadowing statements hits like a brick. "I don't think I'll be at all famous," Amy says near the start of her career. "I don't think I could handle it. I'd go mad."

Few punches are pulled in the depiction of Winehouse's famously destructive cycle of booze, drugs and tragic love, but this is counterbalanced by depictions of her musical genius at work and the unwanted fame that ultimately destroyed her. As live performances are shown, Amy's lyrics are presented onscreen, and in the context, it's a gut punch.

The editing and narrative flow of "Amy" are as good as it gets for a documentary. It's a brilliant, heartbreaking movie that is everything its subject deserves.


Opens Friday

4 stars out of 4