FROM A DISTANCE, it's hard to tell how much celebrity suffering is theater. Asif Kapadia's shattering documentary Amy certainly qualifies as theater in its own right, piecing together great amounts of archival, never-before-seen video footage of late musician Amy Winehouse with dramatic effectiveness. Much of Kapadia's film is narrated by the star herself, inter-spliced with everyone from Tony Bennett to the tearful voice of an old friend on the telephone.
The broad facts of Winehouse's short life are well known—though on a collective level, after just four years' time, her death still feels unprocessed. The evidence Kapadia has collected of the singer's struggles confirms what you might have only passively absorbed via tablet or tabloid while on your morning bus commute: disorder of the body and mind, a substance-forward recklessness that could pass as affectation, and the unfortunate influence of one Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who both gave Winehouse the inspiration for the unforgettable record Back to Black and accelerated the severity of her mistreatment of her body, for which he has publicly apologized. By the time Winehouse finally refused to perform, sabotaging her career, it wasn't theater; it was what she needed. But that was too little, too late.
Sorting through all of this is often sordid and plainly sad, though Amy maintains a degree of buoyancy by also focusing on Winehouse's musical development. The footage of Winehouse's early performances is so remarkable that her father, Mitch, has recommended that his daughter's fans see the film, even while denouncing the final product as "unbalanced."
But as it plays, and from an outsider's perspective, Kapadia's portrait feels rounded and real. Winehouse could be intimidating, dark, and sarcastic, but also hammy and affectionate. At times Amy feels impossibly, uncomfortably intimate. Unlike HBO's Kurt Cobain study Montage of Heck—which Amy will unavoidably be compared to, by virtue of their close release dates more than anything else—Winehouse's story isn't couched in well-developed nostalgia. Her life is still subject to the public's investigation and final judgment. While Kapadia's film is an exercise in the same intense scrutiny that Winehouse prophesied would make her "go mad," there's some comfort to be found in the assumption that, now deceased, she can't feel it.