Asif Kapadia’s superb documentary about pop’s lost girl, Amy Winehouse, is shot through with as much heartache and sadness as one of her songs. Winehouse was the brassy, boozy singer with the bird’s nest hair who became a tabloid fixture in the latter stages of her short 27 years - a caricature that all but blotted out the person she really was.

Amy was the modern soul music saviour who could not save herself. Like many stars with first-name recognition, the diminutive singer was quickly dwarfed by sudden fame and with great purpose and clarity Kapadia has given his film the tagline “the girl behind the name”. This is the truest portrait of her, both angel and demon, you are likely to see. 

Like Senna, his acclaimed film about Ayrton Senna, Kapadia has brilliantly edited a huge wealth of personal footage, phone and camcorder film, and archive news material together to tell Amy’s story, almost from childhood to her grim final surrender to the void on a quiet Camden street in July 2011.

Often the footage is POV. We see Amy vamping it up as she impersonates Marilyn Monroe at a friend’s birthday party in 1998, we see a bleary-eyed Amy in the back of her first manager’s car on the way to an early gig in Brighton. This archive material makes Amy an unbearably sad experience and also gives the film an eerie intimacy that stays with you for days after viewing.

Also like Senna, the story is told with its subject front and magnetic centre at all times. Amy is rarely off the screen and there are no cutaways to talking heads in tastefully lit rooms recalling their fallen friend. Kapadia spent long months, sometimes up to year, gaining the trust of Winehouse’s confidants and friends and in particular her childhood mates, Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby, who had taken a vow of silence, open up with real emotional force and tearful memories.  

Kapadia quietly and brilliantly gets to the very centre of Winehouse’s being. It becomes clear that towards the end, she just wanted to disappear. Perhaps the most telling scene in the whole film comes when we see Amy on-stage in a London club as part of a live televised link-up to LA where her hero Tony Bennett announces that she is the winner of multiple Grammys for her second album, Back to Black.

Amy fakes elation and shock and then makes a sad and desperate off-camera remark which reveals all you need to know about what really lay in the deep well of her soul.

Amy, you’re still a heartbreaker.

Alan Corr 

Click here to read TEN's interview with director Asif Kapadia