Amy Winehouse, the brash little Jewish girl with the great big voice, died four years ago this month.
There are any number of ways to mark that unhappy anniversary and draw inspiration from the British singer-songwriter’s artistic legacy. Subjecting yourself to “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s unattractive and superficial documentary, is not the recommended option.
“Amy” opened on July 10.
Strewn with grainy video footage shot by Amy, her family and friends over several years, “Amy” is conceived as an intimate, behind-the-scenes portrait of a very public, very talented figure. Given that Winehouse mined her troubled relationships for her pain- and yearning-filled lyrics, it makes sense to conflate her creative and personal lives.
But rather than highlighting Winehouse’s artistic courage, and her commitment to confronting and conveying hard truths, “Amy” presents its subject as weak, insecure, volatile and vulnerable. In lieu of insight, Kapadia offers amateur psychologizing.
The list of culprits goes way back. When Amy was a toddler, her mother wasn’t strong enough to stand up to her or rein her in. (Had her mother set firm boundaries all along, who’s to say the free-thinking Amy wouldn’t have rebelled and run away as a teenager?)
Her father cheated on her mother for years before they divorced when Amy was an adolescent. We are left to conclude that this is the source of Amy’s neediness, promiscuity, vulnerability and poor judgment regarding men. (Mitch Winehouse resurfaces once her career takes off, which allows Kapadia to imply that he was more concerned with Amy’s income streams than with her health.)
Oddly, no other facts about Winehouse’s upbringing are deemed to be relevant, including what kind of work her parents did or how they instilled her Jewish identity.
We infer that the North London family was lower middle class, without connections or access to opportunities for their children. From the playful, self-deprecating way Winehouse refers to herself in messages left on answering machines, it appears that she associated being Jewish with being a curiosity and an outsider.
Although lyrics were important to her, there was no literary component to Winehouse’s Jewish identity. Her musical idols weren’t Jewish wordsmiths such as Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro or Paul Simon but vocalist/interpreters Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett. (His collaboration in the studio with an awestruck Winehouse on “Body and Soul” for his “Duets II” album — reportedly her last recording — is one of the more wrenching sequences in “Amy.”)
The film also casts some responsibility for the 27-year-old’s premature demise on her bad-boy lover and eventual husband Blake Fielder-Civil. She followed his lead into hard drugs out of some twisted combination of love, obsession and need.
Finally, Kapadia tosses the pressures of fame and the pursuit of the paparazzi into the mix. If “Amy” is starting to sound like the familiar, formulaic shape of an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” your hearing is excellent.
The documentary’s big revelation — which is withheld until late in the film, giving it a sensationalist vibe — is that Winehouse was bulimic. Had “Amy” presented her illness as a defining (albeit secret) characteristic from childhood instead of withholding it for dramatic purposes, the documentary’s social utility would be infinitely greater.
Regrettably fulfilling the clichés of too many portraits of artists, “Amy” can’t resist being drawn — like the proverbial moth to a flame — to the sordidness, unhappiness and public embarrassment that denoted Winehouse’s low points.
Thankfully, what will remain long after the details of her life have faded into trivia on a Wikipedia page, is that extraordinary voice. The best way to mark Amy Winehouse’s life is to listen to her music.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.