The scene that tears your heart out comes late in “Amy” – late in the movie and late in the appallingly short life of Amy Winehouse.
She and Tony Bennett are recording a duet version of “Body and Soul,” one of the greatest and most venerable of jazz standards. Bennett will be 89 years old in August. He was 84 when he and Amy Winehouse recorded the song together and were filmed doing it.
You have to understand that by that point in his life, there is virtually no kind of human wreckage that Bennett hasn’t already seen in music. We’re talking about a 60-plus year veteran of show business who has no doubt seen, from every possible distance, up close to long distance, every possible kind of self-destruction.
He is one of Amy’s idols. Earlier, we’ve seen in the film that when Bennett announces her winning a Grammy from another continent, Amy in London can’t help but expressing childlike awe to her father about the man announcing it “Dad! Tony BENNETT!”
Amy is a wreck during the “Body and Soul” duet and she knows it – especially during the first take. She breaks down completely after a few bars and seems to want to quit rather than humiliate herself in front of this great singer she has loved and followed since she was a teenage girl.
He is exquisitely tender with her. It’s as if every singer and musician he’s ever known to destroy themselves, from Billie Holiday on, were standing next to him. He briefly coaxes her through it with all the grandfatherly tenderness you will ever see in a film.
The result is still wreckage of a sort but she eventually rouses herself to get through well enough that her amazing voice can carry her and justify her presence 10 feet away from a master. It is a hugely powerful piece of video.
The biggest shock of all about Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” – unquestionably a great biographical documentary about a great musical performer – is how very much video and film there is of Amy Winehouse, beginning when she was a teenager.
Her voice was a raw, huge thing that seems to come from the same kind of lusty and slightly miraculous larynx that was possessed by Dinah Washington and the great country singer Patsy Cline. It put her in front of people at a ridiculously early age.
You see all kinds of video of teen Amy. At 20, she talks about the prospect of fame on a radio show: “I don’t think I can handle it. I’d probably go mad.”
Something like that anyway is exactly what happened seven years later. And that’s what we watch in this film of heartbreaking self-destruction that simply didn’t have to happen.
If only her father, Mitch Winehouse, had admired more about Bennett than his durable and remarkable art. If only the father we see had the protective sweetness we saw in that clip of the “Body and Soul” duet with Bennett.
But no. Not Mitch. “She didn’t need to go to rehab,” he says on camera at one point.
Her song “Rehab” is one of the more appalling hits in the history of pop music. “They tried to make me go to rehab/but I said ‘no, no, no’ ” she sang, in an ode to self-destruction and enablers everywhere, especially parents and corporations that stand to make millions by letting her continue to work and stockpile the result to be exploited after death.
“A force of nature” people called her early on. And they treated her like a force of nature rather than a needy human being – a hurricane that you just stepped back from, threw up your hands at and waited for under cover until it blew itself out.
Which it finally did when she died of toxic alcohol poisoning.
At every turn in this film, you’re confronted with her music, which sounds better and better as the years go by – not her songs, about which the verdict will be out for a while but the voice, the voice.
A record executive says, with harrowing accuracy “Nothing can prepare you for that kind of success.” Especially in England, with its piranha press, in an Internet era. We see, in one scene, always troubled Amy trying to make her way through a savage storm of photographer’s flashbulbs that might as well have been a swarm of hornets.
Nothing indeed could prepare anyone for that.
She wasn’t a “force of nature” at all but rather a delicate human being who suffered from bulimia early on and who, over and over, accepted the worst of all possible people into the most vulnerable and intimate parts of her life – her father, ineffectual at best, exploitative at worst, and her husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to heroin and who tells us that Amy thought of them as “twins.”
The moment when, in the height of absurdity, they go into rehab together, leads to the protracted horrors at the end of the film.
The well-known video of her collapse in front of a huge audience in Belgrade is the moment when you fully understand just how malevolent a “force of nature” huge pop fame can be.
Amy Winehouse had a talent and a voice and, for a few years, an international career. In exchange, fame, drugs and alcohol took her life.
In the business of music, it’s no matter. Alive or dead.
There’s always money to be made either way.
Starring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Tony Bennett, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson, Yasin Bey
Director: Asif Kapadia
Running time: 128 minutes
Rating: R for drugs and language.
The Lowdown: Documentary on the short life of British soul singer Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning at 27.