“I'll always put a punchline in a song,” Amy Winehouse says in a 2004 interview that’s played toward the beginning of Asif Kapadia’s new biopic on the singer, Amy. In the clip, she’s talking about the songwriting process of her 2003 debut album, Frank, which she made at the age of 19. It’s a record that, as much as it’s bitter, angry, regretful and lovesick, never fails to be funny. On “Stronger Than Me,” she tells a clueless lover, I’m not gonna meet your mother any time/ I just wanna grip your body over mine. She chastises the girls who wear “Fuck Me Pumps”: you can’t sit down right, ‘cause your jeans are too tight. The short and sweet song “I Heard Love Is Blind” is essentially one rude bar joke, with Winehouse convincing her boyfriend she only cheated on him because she thought a handsome stranger looked like him. He’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell/ I was lying down.
As Winehouse relates in another interview played elsewhere in the film, songwriting for her was a means of dealing with her depression; and, by extension, so was her humor. Salaam Remi, her production and songwriting partner, remembers in Amy, “What I allowed her to do was put her wit into her songs.” If anything is missing from the way we as a culture remember Amy Winehouse, four years after she died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, it’s her wit. Her story has become one of sheer tragedy, the horror of her addiction and demise seemingly wiping out cultural memory of her as a multi-faceted person—one as likely to make you howl with laughter as quickly as she’d make you cry. Instead, she’s fallen victim to a societal fascination with fallen women; flattened out by tabloid headlines into a spectacle, a warning tale of the horrors of addiction, rather than the talented and complicated person she was. As Molly Beauchemin outlined in a recent article for The Pitch, it’s a story that’s repeated itself countless times with troubled female artists, who are so often remembered for their troubles rather than their artistry: “[The] incredibly subtle ‘othering’ of women, coupled with a culture-wide superficiality that places the onus of physical beauty more squarely on female celebrities than on men, sets female artists up for spectacle—the pernicious underbelly of gossip.” In a world that has reduced Winehouse to a caricature, Asif Kapadia’s Amy triumphs in its humanization of her.
Told through reels of raw footage and interviews with close friends and family, the documentary revels in Winehouse’s cheeky retorts to interviewers. At one point she sucks her teeth and sighs as a journalist in an early press junket tries to compare her to British moms’ favorite singer Dido. Later, when UK talk show host Jonathan Ross asks her if anyone in the industry has attempted to mold her artistry, she responds, “yes, one tried to mold me into a big triangle shape.” She’s also shown messing about playing pool, rolling joints, tugging at her beehive and sticking her tongue out on a boat ride, snogging her husband and talking to him in a baby voice. She behaves in a thousand different ways: not tortured artist, not attention-seeking performer, not awkward introvert or raging drunk, but somewhere between and beyond all of these stereotypes.
It also depicts with graphic honesty the way in which, as Winehouse’s self-destruction took a stronger hold, even her humor became a weapon. She could be cutting when she wanted to be: take “Rehab,” the jaunty Motown-influenced hit that made her into an international superstar, and was actually a true account of how her former manager and best friend Nick Shymansky attempted to get her to go to rehab before recording her second album Back To Black. “I knew at some point she’d write a really big hit, and it was ironic that the hit she wrote was...mocking me,” Shymansky told The Guardian in an interview around the film. “Not only was I not her manager any more, but she’d written this huge hit that’s undeniably brilliant, that was a complete mockery of our friendship and of what she needed. And the whole world’s dancing along to it, and really she was writing about a decision that five years later would result in her being dead. It was really fucked up.”
Winehouse’s humor kept getting crueller, more inward-facing—she’s shown silently rolling her eyes at paps who storm her car, and smirking ever so slightly as she sings the line oh, what a mess we’ve made during a performance of “Love Is A Losing Game” at the 2007 Mercury Awards, before running off stage to grab the hand of her then-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who introduced her to heroin and crack cocaine. She’s described as having left reels of rambling drunken voicemails to friends during her final years, including one to Salaam Remi that’s played in the film, where she nonsensically jokes she’s been writing “little battle raps,” comparing herself to a samurai.
The final hint of that humor comes at her notorious “comeback” show in Serbia in 2011, at which she was too intoxicated to perform. As she stumbles around the stage, in footage that’s painful to watch in the hindsight of her death a little over a month afterwards, there’s an incongruous, sporadic smile on her face. Remi recounts how she called him after the performance sounding jubilant, making out that she had deliberately sabotaged the show so that she could go home. Her humor became yet another way she could shield herself, turning it against so many of the people around her that there was no one left in on the joke except her.
Towards the end of her life, the media was merciless in its treatment of Winehouse, and the film in turn is merciless on them. Comedians George Lopez and Frankie Boyle are shown making tasteless gags about her, while Shymansky remembers, “Suddenly it was cool to crack jokes about a bulimic’s appearance and her drug addiction.” In the final four years of her life, Winehouse didn’t release any new material, instead touring Back To Black until even her own band, in the words of her pianist, found the material “tired.” Without any output from the mouth of the artist herself, the media took hold of her narrative, and made her into their punchline.
What Kapadia has achieved with Amy is the first sincere step to undo that travesty, and to remember Amy as funny and troubled, as brilliant and flawed, as an irreplaceable artist. It’s kinder than the tabloid media: it displays grim photographs of Winehouse taking narcotics, damning stories and representations of her drunken behaviour, but never gawps at her pain or revels in her mistakes. It’s also less biased than any one account of her life: taking in multiple contradictory memories from those closest to her, it leaves the question of accountability for her downward spiral open-ended (though her father and ex-husband unquestionably come off badly). Mostly, it steers away from playing the story for drama. Kapadia doesn’t emphasise Winehouse’s trauma, but lets it breathe through the film, alongside her sense of humor. With its reliance on unedited footage and frank personal interviews, the film feels like the closest we’ll ever get to hearing Amy’s story told honestly outside of the music she left behind. It’s not always the most flattering portrait—it’s full of contrast, conflict and nuance—but it feels like the one she deserves.
Amy opens in L.A. and New York on July 3rd and nationwide on July 10th.