Without question one of the best movies I saw at May’s Cannes Film Festival was one I resisted at first. I really wasn’t all that interested in seeing Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the life of singer Amy Winehouse. Her unnecessary death at age 27 after a life played out in front of the prying cameras of the paparazzi was just too tragic and sad in my view to live through in a cinema. But as I say in my video review (click the link above), boy was I ever wrong.

pete hammond review badgeKapadia, who did equally fine work with Senna, the life of the famous race car driver, was essentially given the keys to the kingdom by friends, family and associates of Winehouse — even though all of them were initially reluctant to participate. We can be thankful they did because it is an unforgettable and compelling portrait they paint of someone who really was just a normal person caught up in the fast lane of fame, rock and roll, drugs and perhaps some people she would have been better off never meeting. This film shows it all including the darkest moments as well as the dazzling highs. Above all there is that soaring musical talent.

You come away saddened about the loss of someone who would be truly one of the greats as Tony Bennett, a participant in the film, says. There is fascinating footage of the recording session they did together and it really shows her vulnerability as well as her raw and undeniable talent on display. The footage overall is remarkable: It seems she really did live her life on camera in many ways, most tragically when the fame hit. Kapadia has assembled it all masterfully, with new interviews woven in and, as in Senna, no narration. His style is to let the pictures and interviews do all the talking, and in this case it works beautifully. I felt he was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Senna, likely for using the same technique which is somewhat unorthodox in documentary circles but highly original and effective.

I hope the Academy will look at this as much more than another movie about a rock star who met a tragic end. It is way beyond that. Ultimately this film is also musical nirvana as it gives lots of breathing room to hear the magnificent vocal performances Winehouse left behind. I will confess I wasn’t a huge fan during her lifetime, but after seeing this film I am going to get my hands on everything I can find she ever recorded. She had extraordinary range, a jazz singer for the ages who also neatly fit into other styles including of course the pop music world that so embraced her. For Winehouse fans this is a treasure trove of material. Sad, yes, but necessary as a cautionary tale of what show business success at such a young age can do to a fragile but winning personality.

A24 Films releases Amy on limited basis in England and the U.S. on Friday. Do you plan on seeing it? Let us know what you think.