A GIRL CALLED AMY
Asif Kapadia on his Amy Winehouse documentary, and the moments that he says changed her life forever
When film-makers Asif Kapadia (director), James Gay-Rees (producer) and Chris King (editor) collaborated on the 2010 documentary Senna, the resulting portrait of the Formula One driver Ayrton Senna earned a brace of awards and rave notices. Now Kapadia and his collaborators have turned their attention to another tragic, gone-too-soon star, the late jazzy soulstress Amy Winehouse.
Amy Winehouse died in July 2011, aged 27, of alcohol-related issues, five years after the multi-platinum success of her second studio album, Back to Black.
As with the posthumously assembled Senna, Kapadia’s profoundly sad and often maddening bio-doc Amy was necessarily crafted without direct access to its subject. With Senna, however, the director could call on an extensive Formula One archive and people who saw him every day. Winehouse’s life and death proved trickier to untangle.
“On Senna, there were experts. They had read every book,” says the 43-year-old filmmaker. “With Amy, there was no obvious go-to person. There was no journalist who knew her the whole way through. There were people who dropped in and out of her life. It became a process of trying to investigate her life. Of what happened and why. One by one, I worked my way down the list.”
The difficulties posed by Amy Winehouse’s scattershot social
life were compounded by gaps in the available footage. As Kapadia notes, even before Back to
Black made her a global name, Winehouse was already a shell of her former self.
“She really did change,” Kapadia says. “I read many interviews in various magazines. From 2007 on, there are almost no interviews.
“She did a short tour of the US then, and all the journalists were all saying she was uninterested and not a good talker. I read that and thought: did they meet her? I had seen what she used to be like. She was very forthcoming, very funny, very articulate.
“Then Back to Black came along, and she just didn’t speak any more. When all the issues behind the scenes kicked off, she stopped talking. It was stunning how quickly she changed.”
To fill in the gaps, Kapadia conducted more than 100 interviews with friends, colleagues, and family members. Winehouse’s former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who has often been accused of introducing Winehouse to hard drugs, gives a lengthy account of their time together. Many interviewees, including Winehouse’s childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, were initially wary of going on the record and had sworn a “vow of silence” at her funeral.
“They took a long time to come round,” says Kapadia. “They also had lots of great footage. They were very nervous. They were in from the beginning and they had an issue with paparazzi and the media. They didn’t trust anyone.”
Another notable hold-out was Salaam Remi, who co-produced Winehouse’s platinum-selling debut album, Frank.
“He was also there from the beginning,” says Kapadia. “He works with some amazing peo- ple, like The Fugees, but he doesn’t give interviews. I have now been interviewed by a lot of music journalists and I have yet to meet one who has met Salaam. I didn’t know that going in. He is a private person. It took over a year to get him to meet me.”
In addition to these testimonies, Kapadia complied footage from archive, news broadcasts, still photographs, selfies, paparazzi shots, concerts and home movies. Taking cues from Winehouse’s startlingly intimate lyrics, he spent 20 months playing detective in the editing suite to create the most comprehensive retelling of her life to date.
“There were things that didn’t make sense,” he says. “How did things turn out the way they did? Does anybody care? I was forced to think very deeply. The clues were in the songs. The songs tell you everything.”
In chronological order, Amy charts Winehouse’s life and career. In early scenes we encounter a firebrand, a funny, charming teenager who cracks wise from the back of her first manager’s car as they travel from one jazz dive to another.
By the end, as a brief reel of mean-spirited comic mono- logues demonstrate, her descent into substance abuse, bulimia and alcoholism made her a punchline for comedians and chat-show hosts everywhere.
“Those were a few examples,” says Kapadia. “That section could have been 25 minutes long. Longer, even. There’s stuff from Brazil. There’s stuff from America. There’s stuff from everywhere. So much of it is negative. It’s industrial international bullying. It’s open season. And she can’t fire back.
“People say all publicity is good publicity. But that’s a lie. More and more you see people laughing at her online and sharing clips on YouTube. Here are comedians making jokes about a person who is sick. I hope that when people step away from the film, they’ll see that.”
Amy received a standing ovation at its Cannes premiere, but not everybody is happy. Last month, Winehouse’s father, Mitch, revealed that he had requested that the film be re-edited after seeing its original cut, claiming that the documentary had an “agenda” and had portrayed him and the rest of his family in “the worst possible light”.
He pre-emptively appeared on ITV’s This Morning, saying: “Had the first film come out, I wouldn’t have been able to walk down the street as there would have been people who wanted to shoot me and Amy’s manager, Raye [Cosbert].”
Mitch Winehouse remains dissatisfied by Kapadia’s subsequently altered film and has expressed an interest in making his own documentary, or possibly a biopic. Interestingly, Universal Music, who made the initial approach to Kapadia’s producer, James Gay-Rees, only secured the cooperation of Winehouse’s parents, Mitch and Janis, when the director signed on.
Kapadia insists there was no agenda against Mitch Winehouse or anyone else. “I go into films as a blank sheet,” he says. “You interview 100 people. You hear these stories. The film is the essence of all that I heard and what I think.
“There are certain things that people will be uncomfortable with. Everyone at some point feels guilty about their part in the story. As much as we can be, it is supposed to be an honest representation of Amy’s life. We are not pointing the finger in any direction.”
It’s true that Amy resists shaming and blaming any one individual. Rather, the film depicts a knotted, systemic series of failings and frailties, as those around Winehouse – a woman who desperately craved approval and love – fail to intervene successfully in her decline.
“The experts I have talked to say the earlier you intervene, the more likely you are to succeed,” says Kapadia. “But the building blocks for the problems started long before the footage shows. It’s complicated. With Amy, there were so many complications.”
Amy opens on July 3rd
There was no journalist who knew her the whole way through. There were people who dropped in and out of her life. It became a process of trying to investigate her life. Of what happened and why. One by one, I worked my way down the list ‘Back to Black’ came along, and Amy just didn’t speak any more. When all the issues behind the scenes kicked off, she stopped talking. It was stunning how quickly she changed – Asif Kapadia
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“The clues were in the songs. The songs tell