Amy is the type of illuminating documentary that will forever alter your perception of its subject. In this case the subject is Amy Winehouse, the British songstress with a once-in-a-generation voice, and whose speedy showbiz ascent was just overshadowed by a drug-fueled downfall that ended with her death at the age of 27 in 2011.
Using a blend of home movies, mobile phone videos, concert footage, and paparazzi shots, director Asif Kapadia (Senna) introduces us to a young, playful, and immensely talented Londoner who genuinely never aspired to fame. Many of Winehouse’s songs take on new meaning as Kapadia pits the singer’s soulful and soul-baring music and lyrics against the real-life events and emotions that inspired them.
The film is also devastating, as Kapadia’s film holds various parties accountable for her very public undoing, including the paparazzi and tabloid media, a manager, and even her own family (among things you’ll never look the same at again: that line from “Rehab” that goes “my daddy thinks I’m fine”). We as viewers aren’t let off the hook, either, especially if we ever laughed at a late-night host’s crack about Winehouse or casually dismissed her as a “trainwreck.”
The documentary premiered to critical acclaim at Cannes in May, yet just before it became the target of the Winehouse family’s dismay; they “disassociated” themselves from it due to their belief that it is “misleading” and “contains some basic untruths.”
Kapadia told Yahoo Movies about his journey making the film, and acknowledged that he realized it would make some people in Winehouse’s life uncomfortable.
What inspired you to tell Amy Winehouse’s story? Were you a big fan of her music?
I had some CDs. I knew her music, but I never saw her live. I never met her. I wasn’t a crazy fan. I suppose there were a couple things. One, I’m a Londoner, I’m from North London, and she was very much a local girl. So there’s an element of just being proud of people who do well who are local. And then I just had so many questions. I didn’t understand why things turned out the way they did. How it was possible that she died that way in front of our eyes and nobody stopped it. I like to make films where I learn along the way, like the audience. I didn’t get it, I didn’t get it why no one stopped it.
What answers most surprised you?
I was really surprised to learn how funny she was. And really intelligent. She was an amazing girl. I had no idea who she really was. And then real basic things, like how she wrote everything. Everyone talks about her voice, but the writing was incredible. And I thought if we could just highlight that, that she wrote these amazing lyrics that were all personal. You realize that her whole story’s there, it’s been right in front of our eyes the whole time. We just didn’t listen carefully enough.
And getting back to that overarching question, why don’t you think anyone stopped it?
That’s the sad and the complicated one, because it seemed like a lot of people lost track of her and were thinking of themselves, or were out for something and she was the one in the middle of it all. People just got confused or their judgment was clouded. People were doing things for themselves, not for her.
One complicated aspect of the documentary is that your film villainizes the paparazzi for their role in Amy’s demise, yet also uses photos and footage from them. Did that feel like a conflict?
Not really, because it felt like my job as a director was to use all of the tools to best tell the story. So I think to not show that aspect of her life would have been missing a big chunk of her life. And a main thing is the context, isn’t it? It’s like, I use that footage and I know what I’m doing — I know that people are going to bring it up, but — how are you going to really feel what it’s like to be her at that time unless you use that footage? Unless you are in the middle of it?
Because there’s a whole kind of visual journey through the film. It starts with her friends taking photographs, then Nick, her first manager, has a camera, and he’s filming her performing and interviewing her and chatting with her. And she’s flirting with us, the audience, straight down the lens. And at certain points, she’s got the camera, she’s filming herself. And then there’s a boyfriend, or a husband, or journalists filming her. And then it becomes slightly different when there are paparazzi photographing her. Then it becomes the darker stuff. And in all of that footage, she’s looking down the camera, looking at us. And it felt like that more violent part of the cameras was an important part of her life and her story, so I had to use it.
It was the most visceral… but the idea was to show it in a different context and to make us think about it. That’s the whole point. So the question is totally right because you’re meant to think about it. People were consuming this. This is what we knew of her.
Watch a Young Amy Winehouse Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in a Clip from 'Amy’:
How involved was Amy’s family in the production beyond granting interviews to you?
I said to everybody, “The only way this is going to work is if one, you leave us alone to make the film, and two, I have to talk to everyone. Nobody should be out of bonds. So we’re gonna speak to everyone, because honestly, I didn’t know the story. Until I talked to people I didn’t know exactly what the film was going to be.” And that was fine, everyone agreed. There was no censorship.
And then from the research, from the interviews, and from the footage from people who spoke to me and trusted me, that’s what the film is entirely constructed out of. So the finished film is an honest representation of what we found. We had to make a decision, if we’re going to do this film are we going to do right by Amy, and be honest? And say this is the complex life that she led, and this is what was going around her. And we just decided that if we’re going to do it, we have to be true to her and show what was going on. And certain people may not like everything in the film, but that’s what was going on.
Were you surprised by the family’s negative reaction once they saw the film?
Like I said, there’s a point where you just realize, if we’re going to do this film and be honest then certain people might find it uncomfortable, but we have to be true to her.
Have you talked to her family since?
Some of them, yes. Some people have said to us privately that they’re very happy with the film. It’s honest. It’s not comfortable, but it’s honest.
Haven’t spent so much time with her, and her memory, what do you think will be her legacy?
It’s interesting because she only had two albums. And she had a few hit records [singles], and if you see the film you’re never going to hear them the same again. There’s a lot more going on there. So the music will change, in how one receives it and listens to it.
But I think, on a really basic level, I just hope that people think of her — this could sound terrible, OK — as a human being. She became this caricature. She became this joke figure. She became such an easy, cheap joke. Make fun of her! And then you realize, Oh my god, that’s a kid. A real person with real feelings, just a sweet, ordinary person who was just minding their own business and then fame came along because she had a talent. She made some bad choices, some bad decisions — everyone does when they’re young.
But I suppose in a simple way, it’s not about the career and the records and all that, it’s just a human being who’s there deep down underneath it all who had problems. And maybe people will think before they attack, before they humiliate or make fun, or share that YouTube video, or comment on someone on Twitter… Maybe her legacy is, do we think twice before we do that kind of thing again to the next person?
Amy opens in select theaters on July 3. Watch the trailer: