There's no higher purpose for a music documentary than to reveal the creative genius of a little known or under-appreciated artist. With millions in record sales and five Grammy Awards in 2008 for her Back to Black album, the late British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse can hardly be described as a cult figure. But those who know her mainly through her famously tabloid-worthy exploits, her death at age 27 or her hit single "Rehab" don't really know her at all. That's the starting point for director Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking Amy, which makes a strong case for Winehouse as an artist whose rare gifts were more noteworthy than her penchant for self-destruction.
It's hard to think of another documentary portrait as intimate as Amy, but that's largely a byproduct of Winehouse's 21st-century career. The film artfully assembles reams of non-professional video and photography, from early images of Winehouse's childhood to later, often very candid material shot by friends or family on smartphones. More than 100 people were interviewed for the film, but Amy has no onscreen talking heads in the traditional sense — all the insights from those who best knew Winehouse are presented in audio form and intermittently accompany the "found" images. The cumulative effect is that of Winehouse telling her own life story, and it's unlike anything seen before in a music documentary.
Kapadia shapes this material by structuring the film around Winehouse's songs, which often reflect specific events in her life to an unsettling degree. The device works far better than one might expect, especially given the too-familiar trajectory of Winehouse's life: early but well-deserved fame, distaste for the pressures of celebrity and an entourage that included Winehouse's husband and father, who failed to save her from herself. Told in conventional style, the film might have sunk under the weight of show-biz cliche. Instead, Amy discovers depth and meaning in Winehouse's music and celebrates her intelligence and off-kilter charisma. Essentially a jazz singer stuck in a pop-music era, Winehouse was just getting started when it all slipped away.
At 127 minutes, Amy is long — really long — for a music documentary, and it comes dangerously close to serving up too much of a good thing. The film earns its running time by treating Winehouse with the love and respect she deserved but didn't always receive. It's an exhaustive portrait, but one that fulfills its mission of giving Winehouse back to the world that made her. Lost treasure is far better than no treasure at all.