Amy, the beautifully detailed and heartbreaking documentary about singer-songwriter Amy Jade Winehouse, who died four years ago at age 27 of alcohol poisoning, premiered at Cannes last month to ecstatic reviews. Audiences were reported sobbing during the screening.
Director Asif Kapadia (best known for Senna, about Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna) believes that most people knew Winehouse only as the tragic junkie with the beehive hairdo and Cleopatra eyes, whose drug and alcohol abuse were captured by piranha-like paparazzi and joked about in the media. Kapadia wanted to focus on another side of the artist: the genius of her lyrics. He says, “Everything you need to know about Amy’s life was there in her diary, which are her lyrics. Every single song is based on a real incident documenting her own life in her own words.”
Early video footage—courtesy of the singer’s oldest and closest friends, Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby—reveal a chubby-cheeked, bubbly and bright teenager. Winehouse, who called herself a North London Jewish girl, looks happy and healthy, even as she talks about struggling with depression and using music as a distraction.
Kapadia struck more pay dirt when he discovered early videos and photographs from 1999-2006, courtesy of Nick Shymansky, the singer’s first manager. We see Amy and Nick photograph each other and joke around as they pose and vamp, a happy time before cameras became Winehouse’s enemy. There’s a terrific clip of Winehouse, 19, as she auditions for a record producer while playing an acoustic guitar; he’s awed by her voice and signs her on the spot.
Kapadia interviewed hundreds of the singer’s associates, family, friends and collaborators. Up until now, music producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson have spoken little about working with Winehouse, whom they praise in the film as a musical genius. Ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, blamed often for Winehouse’s use of hard drugs, was incarcerated when she died and appears in the documentary as something of a lost soul. Janis Winehouse, Amy’s mother, described by the singer as too soft and unable to control her, forlornly talks about her daughter’s lifelong struggle with bulimia. No one comes off worse than Mitchell Winehouse, Amy’s father, a cab driver until her death, who at best is a doting and indulgent father but more often seems to bask and profit from his daughter’s celebrity. Mitch participated in the documentary at first, but now lambasts the way he’s portrayed and has threatened to sue. Amy’s brother Alex refused to speak to the director.
Following a private screening of Amy recently with the director, the reaction from the audience was equal parts sadness and anger. “I kind of wanted people to get angry,” Kapadia says.
Much of the anger could be directed at the paparazzi and the media, who couldn’t get enough of watching the singer waste away, a special animus directed toward her in part because of her gender. “How does a woman get treated when they get famous? How are they represented by the media?” asks Kapadia.
Kapadia, who is British, never met Winehouse but lived in London, not far from the Camden townhouse where the film shows Amy’s body being carted away in a plastic body bag. As for blame, he says, there was plenty to go around.
“It wasn’t a shock when I heard that she had died, unfortunately. It was going to happen. And it’s sad that nobody stopped it. The big question was why nobody stopped it. Why was she onstage? Who was paying for those tickets? Who was enjoying that performance? We’re all complicit.”
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What inspired you to put the lyrics of Winehouse’s songs on the screen to tell her story?
Asif Kapadia (AK): It was kind of accidental. I started doing research and it was like, god! It was always there in front of us but nobody [saw it]… You look at the lyrics and you go, “She’s written it all down.” Everything you need to know about Amy’s life was there in her diary, which are her lyrics. Every single song is based on a real incident, documenting her own life in her own words. The song “Stronger Than me?” It’s all about wanting someone who’s stronger than her. “What is it About Men?,” “Love is a Losing Game,” “Rehab.” “Rehab” is a real incident. That was really a big moment. “Rehab” is about Nick [Shymansky, her manager between 1999-2006], the first man who took her to rehab. Everything that she wrote happened. It seemed like we had to put lyrics onscreen that way; in a couple of screenings we took them off and the film didn’t make sense.
MM: What was the biggest surprise about Amy Winehouse for you?
AK: She was a great writer. That was the big revelation. The voice is what everyone talks about, but I think the writing is even better. The most difficult thing in the world is to write something original, something that will stand the test of time. A blank piece of paper—what do you do with it? What I like is it’s personal for her. Everything is based on real incidents. It’s intelligent. It’s humorous. It’s got references. It’s very London-y. It’s not copying American writing. It’s not just words that rhyme or gobbledygook. Everything is there for a reason. It’s really textured. It’s poetry. It could be published. It’s beautiful. The genius of it being so, so good that everyone can understand it. It’s not hidden smoke and mirrors.
I had no idea she was so intelligent and funny. She was a laugh. You wish you’d met her, been mates. It kept turning up: People who knew her would say that person that everyone saw on the stage was not who she was. The real Amy was so different. Everyone would cry when they talked about her. A journalist who met her once started crying. There was something about her that everyone fell in love with. When you were with her, you felt like you were the only one. I thought, “How am I going to get this across?”
MM: Why did you decide to use voiceover and not to go the traditional documentary route of talking heads?
AK: I come from a drama background, making fiction films, and even in my dramas there’s very little dialogue. People don’t talk on screen a lot. And I made a film before called this called Senna, which was all archives and no talking heads, and I had a real fight to get that made cause everyone said, “That’s a documentary, interview someone.” I said I don’t care what they like; it’s not about them, it’s about him, and it’s the same sort of thing here. It’s the development of that idea. It’s about Amy—and I can’t interview Amy. The spine of the film is her songs and her performances.
At the beginning I don’t know anything. I didn’t have a script. But my instinct says it’s more cinematic if you stay in the moment and the present. If in doubt, just show her face and her eyes, and she tells you everything.
MM: Did you have any problems in getting people close to her to talk to you, some for the first time?
AK: The big battle of the film was getting people to open up [on camera], so really the film began with audio interviews. The first person who spoke to me was Nick Shymansky. He liked Senna and said, “Look, if you hadn’t made that, I wouldn’t even be talking to you—but I did like that film, annoyingly. I did say to my girlfriend as we walked out of that film, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day someone made a film like that about Amy?’ And now you’re calling me. I don’t think the film should be made—I think it’s too soon and too painful—but because you made that film, I’ll meet you.”
We started to talk. It’s quite intimidating filming people, so we sat in a room, just a microphone, just the two of us. The light was not very nice—the top light was harsh and set a [certain] tone, so we turned the lights off, almost, and sat in the darkness and there was no agenda. “Let’s start at the beginning and see where we get to.” People who didn’t want to speak would decide to be there five minutes… then “10 minutes” would become an hour or two hours or four hours. And everyone walked out feeling a bit better. It became this process of just getting stuff off their chest from all the pain that they’d witnessed.
MM: Senna and Amy both had tragic endings. Were there other common threads?
AK: It’s kind of a coincidence more than anything, but one thing that’s interesting is that in both films, we know the ending. Apart from in the U.S., where a lot of people didn’t necessarily know who Senna was, everyone knew that Senna had died young. With Amy it was the same thing. Weirdly enough, it kind of frees you up. With a fiction film it’s always about the ending. And with these docs it’s like, how do we get there? It’s about the journey. It’s about who they are as people. They are kind of linked, these films.
With Amy, the questions are, ‘How does a woman get treated when they get famous? How are women represented by the media?’ She was humiliated and she didn’t speak a lot. She hardly gave an interview, so it became very much about how she was represented. Coincidentally, tragically, both Amy and Senna had the same young end, but they were very different. Senna’s was like an act of god, you know; something weird happened for him to die that moment. Amy’s was that we all knew what was going to happen.
With Amy’s death, it was these long drawn-out five years. Her first album was written when she was about 16, 17, and came out when she was 18: Frank. The second album, Back to Black, was written when she was 21, 22, and came out when she was 22, 23. She died at age 27. Nothing creative came after that. I was witnessing [her decline] in London. You could see this was going on. It wasn’t a shock when I heard that she had died, unfortunately. It was going to happen. And it’s sad that nobody stopped it. That was the big question, why nobody stopped it. Why was she onstage? Who was paying for those tickets? Who was enjoying that performance?
MM: You said with Senna all his friends wanted to contribute or help in some way. How did working on Amy compare with that?
AK: Sadly, with Amy it was almost the opposite. Nobody wanted to talk. Nobody felt open to talk. “What are you going to do for me?” There were a lot of people who didn’t get along, who blamed one another. [Helping her] required everyone to come together and put aside their differences for her. Unfortunately they never did, and they still haven’t. They’re still going on.
MM: Creatively, what do you think were some of her difficulties after Back to Black?
AK: I felt like the problem became partly about having another big hit. What do you follow up a hit with? You need a bigger hit. I actually think she should have had a failure—I wanted her to knock out an experimental album. One of those weird in-between albums, a piece of crap, and then maybe she’d be free to do her hip-hop album or her jazz album or something. What she seemed to say in a lot in interviews is that she wasn’t interested in huge success. She wanted to just keep pushing herself creatively, and I’m not sure the industry was completely happy with her doing something different. They wanted her to do more of the same.
MM: Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, participated in the film and now he’s threatening to sue at the way he feels he is portrayed. What’s your reaction to his complaints?
AK: Everyone else who’s seen the film or has taken part in the film has said that it’s very honest. They’re not all comfortable with everything in the film. There’s a lot of guilt and anger. They were all on television. There were a lot of shows. I think the film is a very honest portrayal of what was going on.
MM: How long does it take to go through all that archival footage and what footage makes the cut?
AK: This was two to two-and-a-half years in the making. People would say, “Initially I told you I didn’t have any footage, but actually I have these photos on my phone or I have this answering machine message.” The way into the material was establishing a relationship and the trust that came from talking. It was a hard process. There were a lot of performance recordings online. They’re all bad. There wasn’t a lot of good footage.
MM: What was like to watch this with an audience?
AK: The first time I saw it with an audience was at Cannes. It was pretty intense. The U.S. has a different perspective because people are more vocal here. Even now as I’m doing this, I’m watching it a lot of times with people who knew her. It’s still a slightly different dynamic. It’s a heavy film at times, but there is laughter. People do laugh. She’s amazing. She’s amazing! People come out of these scenes loving her. MM
Amy opens in theaters July 3, 2015, courtesy of A24.