There’s a question at the heart of Asif Kapadia’s fantastic documentary “Amy.” It’s the question of whether getting the singer the help she needed before she became world famous might have saved her from an untimely death. Of course we can’t answer it. We can only wonder what if. But it’s an entirely fair question and impossible to ponder. “Amy” is essentially a portrait of what happens when you answer this question one way over another. It’s also a portrait of a girl who got bigger than she ever wanted to be, and who was asked for more than she could realistically give. It’s also the story of a protracted, onstage death.
Before I settled in to watch “Amy,” I couldn’t name any of her hits aside from “Rehab.” My connection to her was not personal in any way. I was never a “huge fan.” I never knew the words to any of her songs, but this film still made me feel terribly intimate with her. It opens with a young Amy Winehouse, a gap-tooth girl with a smoky voice who’s quick to belt out a tune or put on a funny accent as she gives you a guided tour of her home. These are happy images that stick with you. This is the girl you weep for as the film starts to crawl toward the inevitable. The movie never loses sight of Young Amy.
Most of us don’t get put on a world stage where our wants, desires, and demons don’t matter to anyone else. Amy did, and couldn’t survive it. The movie is careful not to overtly point any fingers in terms of blaming someone for Amy’s early death, but it doesn’t have to. These are crimes of omission, not commission. Plenty of people gave her enough rope to hang herself. The primary suspect is her father, whose disregard for his daughter and her well-being is stated plainly without being said out loud. There’s even a fellow recording artist whose live-and-let-live attitude isn’t wrong, but it’s shown to Amy at the most inopportune moment possible.
In the end, Amy’s greatest enemy was time. The documentary focuses on the years between 2004-2011. Some of those years are happy years, showing Amy racking up awards, while others show us her very public meltdowns. Seven years isn’t much time at all, but it’s plenty long enough to kill yourself. The drinking, the drugs … seven years of that is a lifetime. The film examines the pivotal moments in those seven years where Amy might have been treated or reasoned with, and maybe the outcome would be different.
Despite these “woulda, coulda, shoulda” moments, it seems impossible that anyone might have actually stood up to the defiant, headstrong Amy, who alternates her unhealthy indulgences between self-defeating devotion to men (Blake Fielder-Civil, her husband and chief enabler) and substances that are bad for her. You wonder if there ever was a time when she actually could have been saved, or if she was destined to destroy herself no matter what. The film makes it seem like the answer to both of those questions is yes.
“Amy” is a haunting, tragic portrayal of the final years an intensely talented, troubled young woman. It gives us some last cherished moments of intimacy with Amy, and exposes us all as inadequate to the task of saving her. There will be no encore.