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Amy: Songs in the Key of Death

This heartwrenching documentary of a doomed artist is generating plenty of buzz, controversy


In the opening moments of Amy—a shattering, don't-look-away documentary on the life, destruction and, sadly, death of Amy Winehouse—we see a group of British teens celebrating a friend's birthday in 1998. One of the 14-year-old girls pulls a Tootsie Pop out of her mouth just long enough to sing a few bars of "Happy Birthday." A stunning voice, unlike any other, emerges. We know by now that the voice belonged to Amy Winehouse, and we can only guess what her acquaintances must have been thinking when they heard her sing for the first time. In the next minute of the film, we are treated to a recording of Winehouse, described as an awkward 16-year-old in 2000, singing a jazzy rendition of "Moon River" with the U.K.'s National Youth Jazz Orchestra, while she talks about her idol Tony Bennett.

Eleven years later, Winehouse would stand next to Bennett in London's Abbey Road Studio recording a duet of the jazz standard "Body and Soul." By then, however, Winehouse would have spiraled in and out of countless medical crises due to her serious alcohol and drug addiction—she was prescribed antidepressants at the age of 16. While attempting to sing with Bennett, Winehouse was too star-struck to perform, leading her to nearly walk away from the recording session, saying "I've never done anything like this. I'm sorry." Bennett, the very model of a gentleman, softly says to Winehouse's back, "You're not in any hurry are you? You sound wonderful." She turns, smiles, returns to the mic and records a version of "Body and Soul" that will outlive all of us.

That's only one of countless heartbreaking moments in Amy, which begins with her other-side-of-the-tracks childhood follows her trajectory to super stardom and ends with the 27-year-old's body being carried from her London flat, with what a physician would later say, "a blood alcohol level 45 times higher than the drunk-driving limit."

You may have already heard this fabulous documentary has spawned significant controversy since its explosive debut at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Even though filmmakers secured full cooperation from the Winehouse estate, a spokesman for the late singer's father, Mitch Winehouse, has issued a statement claiming the film is "both misleading and contains some basic untruths." He really only has himself to blame. Mitch appears throughout the documentary, beginning with what he admits was the abandonment of his family when Amy was 9 years old and ending with a number of impromptu appearances at rehab facilities where Amy was trying to kick her addictions. Making matters worse, Mitch sold himself as the centerpiece of a British television reality series, with the unsavory title "My Daughter Amy," in which he attempts to portray himself as a savior. It's gut-wrenching stuff.

But don't shy away from Amy. This movie also has many moments of joy and wonder. Winehouse's label, Universal Music UK, commissioned director Asif Kapadia (Senna) to make the film, giving him full creative control and enviable access to Winehouse's song catalogue. Kudos also go to editor Chris King and composer Antonio Pinto for bridging so many of Winehouse's live performances with a new original score for the movie.

It was also heart-warming to relive some familiar moments, captured on video, from Winehouse's career, including her first American television appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman (she would return two more times), and the night in February 2009 when she swept the Grammy Awards—it was Tony Bennett who announced Winehouse had won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Unfortunately, following the Grammy ceremony, we watch a sober Winehouse pull childhood friend Juliette Ashby aside and say with sadness that life "was so boring without drugs."

Winehouse would return to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol, devolving into the living dead and the punchline of too many jokes. On July 21, 2013, Winehouse called Ashby for what would be the last time, leaving the following message: "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

Two days later, Winehouse was dead.

Everything you may have heard about Amy is true, and then some; so see it with an open heart. As a matter of fact, see it with two. This film will have such an emotional impact; she's bound to break at least one of them.

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Director: Asif Kapadia

Producer: James Gay-Rees, David Joseph and Adam Barker