Amy Winehouse with Blake Fielder-Civil in New York, 2007
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The title Chasing Amy is already taken. Otherwise, what a perfect shadow title for Asif Kapadia’s compelling documentary about Amy Winehouse. The British jazz-soul singer with the voice of a homemade volcano — smoky, gigantic, volatile, yet poignant and wispy-dormant when needed — died at 27. Tabloid simplification for once is probably right: as Amy suggests, she was hounded to death by fame. The fans loved her, the critics loved her, the media loved her (or her newsworthiness). Lost in that adulation – a tidal wave of yea-saying — she couldn’t find herself in the flood of other people’s projections of an identity she thought she owned herself.

Even Amy said it, before and after full celebrity had arrived. 2003: “I’d probably go mad [if I were famous].” Later: “If I really thought I was famous, I’d fucking go top myself.” Her showbiz image was like a cartoon distillation of impending tragedy. That tiny wisp of a Jewish girl, with Ava Gardner eyes and a body barely bigger than the big-boned face, was surmounted by monster, alien hair. The “beehive” suited her, but rather in the way the sword suited Damocles. It was destiny’s grim designer crown.

This bio-documentary is as good as Kapadia’s Senna. The director never imposes a viewpoint (he even keeps his name off the film till the end). He just interlaces, intricately and insightfully, the news and archive footage, the home movies, the concerts, the interviews… Even the villains are allowed their strut. Husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who helped Amy towards her hard drugs habit before being sent to jail, soliloquises self-servingly on the soundtrack. Mitch Winehouse — if manager-fathers are like that who needs toxic substances? — is portrayed as a self-interest industry with an exploitable prodigy of a daughter. He is shown coercing Amy into photo-opps even during downtime on a vacation island.

The speed of her fall now appears dizzying and terrible. Or was it rather the speed of her ascension? When you’re a giggling north London kid one moment, captured on camcorder sticking a lollipop in a throat not yet primed for the pop charts, and a world diva the next laying tracks with Tony Bennett (a fascinating recording studio scene of troubled temperament duetting with old-world serenity), perhaps it’s only a short trip to laying yourself on the tracks. The midnight express is never late; and it’s 11.59 . . .

Amy Winehouse spent her life accepting gifts she hadn’t quite asked for. The drugs, the voice, the fame. Her last act of self-destruction was her death: a gift to herself, even if unwilled, in which she could finally exclude the dubious benefactors who had helped her, and themselves, to her triumph.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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