"She was fast with a blue joke, she could drink you under the table, she wasn't afraid to roll a smoke, she had a big laugh," says Yasiin Bey, the rapper otherwise known as Mos Def, in the documentary "Amy." He's describing Amy Winehouse, the brassy British pop singer who in 2007 barged into America with her rebellious single "Rehab." Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking film will make you wish this one-woman punk band were still around. Unlike many rock documentaries, however, "Amy" doesn't let its subject off lightly.
"Amy" reconstructs the singer's life nearly year by year, starting in 1998 when she was a chubby-cheeked singer with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, continuing through her rise to fame -- and descent into addiction -- and ending with her 2011 death by alcohol poisoning at 27. Using archival footage and audio interviews, "Amy" assembles a picture of a major talent whose problems began long before the paparazzi found her.
The Winehouse family has called Kapadia's film "unfounded and unbalanced," but there's plenty of blame to go around. "Rehab" itself is a damning document, a first-person account of Winehouse's refusal to attend rehab and her father's support of her decision.
If "Amy" has a clear villain, it's her on-again-off-again husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, a fellow addict and enabler. In interviews, he seems utterly remorseless, though his brutal honesty also extends to himself. "I liked to sabotage myself; she liked to sabotage herself," he says. "Maybe it's just our nature."
Missing from this two-hour-plus film is much in-depth description of how Winehouse concocted her blend of jazz, soul and hip-hop. The in-studio moments we do get, however -- including a nervous Winehouse singing with her idol, Tony Bennett -- are precious. One of Kapadia's best discoveries is a clip of a young Amy singing an early song, "What Is It?," at a small club. She looks confident and happy in a way she rarely would again.