Amy Reminds Us Amy Winehouse Was the Greatest Singer of Her Generation

Amy, a documentary of the life of Amy Winehouse, opens nationwide on Friday, July 10.
Amy, a documentary of the life of Amy Winehouse, opens nationwide on Friday, July 10.
A24 Films

If you were going to compare the viewing experience of Amy, the new documentary about singer Amy Winehouse, to another movie, it might have to be Titanic. Throughout the two-hour film, you can’t help but root for Winehouse: She’s funny, charming, and has a voice that could melt the coldest iceberg. When you see her as a teenager cooing “Happy Birthday,” writing songs in the studio, or having her knees buckle over while sharing a duet with Tony Bennett, you pray she gets a happy ending, but you know her ship is going to wreck in the most tragic fashion.

Amy Winehouse, born in 1983 and dead in 2011, is one of the early subjects of this type of documentary. Much of her life, even at a young age, when no one knew who she was, was recorded. By comparison, in the recent Nina Simone documentary, What Happened Miss Simone?, you feel fortunate to catch a black-and-white photograph of a young Simone playing piano. In Amy, you get saved voicemail messages, candid conversations while a friend is holding a video camera, and, of course, all the talk-show appearances.

The first hour of the movie shows how a star is born. From the first time sound emanates from her vocal cords, you remember she is the most distinctive — and possibly greatest — singer of the 21st Century. That might be the type of hyperbole placed on musicians who die young. (Is Kurt Cobain really that much better than Eddie Vedder? Is 2Pac better than Q Tip?) But as you spend the 130 minutes with Winehouse and you hear the depth of her voice, you wonder who her competition could be. Winehouse may have known it. There's a scene where she’s watching the Grammys in which she’s nominated for best record, and she mocks her competition: Beyoncé? Foo Fighters? Jay Z? Justin Timberlake?

Even at an early age, she’s shown to be fully formed musically (if not stylistically — the beehive hair and tattoos came later). With her early death from alcohol poisoning, there’s a tragic connotation to the song "Rehab," but if you can remember the first time you heard her biggest hit, there was a sense of humor to it. It sounded like a lost song from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, only with a modern sense of irony that you learn through the movie was far too autobiographical.

The second half of the movie makes you pay for getting to enjoy such wonderful music, apparently because the last few years of Winehouse’s life didn't involve much music. It follows a Behind the Music formula, showing her steep and painful decline, due mostly to the men in her life. Her father appears to be a celebrity-hungry sycophant, her manager wants to milk her for every cent, her husband introduces her to crack and heroin, and Jay Leno makes jokes about her addictions.

In the end, she left her fans only two albums. Nina Simone was able to focus her energies on the civil rights movement while Winehouse, it seemed, only had her drink and drugs. You come out wishing above all else that she would have gone to rehab.

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