The story is an old, potentially tired one – young entertainer, full of life and ambition, sees a dramatic rise in popularity come at the expense of personal freedom, all while substance abuse ravages their body until an untimely yet entirely predictable death.
The rise and fall of Ms. Winehouse, the iconic singer best known, naturally, for a tune called “Rehab,” is well known. Yet Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy does far more than give us a nuts-and-bolts telling of her tabloid headlines. It humanizes her in a way that’s both affecting and effective, providing an almost startling intimacy with both her talent and her neuroses that provides complexity to her otherwise simplified tale. Building upon the celebrated work that Kapadia did with Senna, we once again have a mashup of off screen interviews interspersed with contemporaneous footage shot through Winehouse’s life. The result has its faults, but overall it’s a beautifully realized commemoration of her capabilities of an entertainer while opening up for fans and casual spectators alike a window into what made her such a charismatic, intense, captivating figure.
Kapadia spoke to Dork Shelf while in Toronto for a special screening of his film.
How did this project come to you, and were there specific challenges in getting the people that many feel directly ties to Winehouse’s death to talk about her?
My producer, James Gay-Rees who produced Senna, the previous film that I did, got a call from David Joseph at Universal Music. David asked would we be interested in making a film about Amy Winehouse? James calls me up and I say look, we can only do a film about a musician if we’ve got all of the permission on board, so before we start even thinking about it, you need the music, the publishing, you need the estate, you need everyone to be on board. So actually, the estate and the family, all of them had agreed to the film from the beginning.
Part of the conversation was this is only going to work if you just leave us alone. We have to interview everyone. We have to speak to everyone because we all know the ending. Everyone knows how this turned out. We know she was in a bad place for a long time and she died. So this is obviously going to be a heavy film, and we’re going to have to deal with these issues. We’re going to have to ask all of the questions. If you’re happy with that, are we going to make the film?
How soon into the project were you able to shape a narrative?
The starting point for the film was always going to be her songs. Once you start looking at the lyrics you start going oh my god, it’s all here. It’s a map, we just don’t know what order it’s in.
In my mind, this was always going to be a musical. I really liked her acoustic performances, just her and a guitar, more than a record, the records feel overproduced to me now. The whole film was like detective work of trying to understand who is she talking about, what does this mean, where’s this, who’s that and talking to people and cross referencing back to the songs. It’s asking what does it mean, that song? Oh, it’s about him, oh really. And then you interview him. And it was just that, kind of following where the story takes you.
You use a similar documentary device as you used on SENNA?
With Senna it was quite a fight to do the film without talking heads. My instinct was that Amy would probably be the same style, but as with Senna I had no idea whether the footage actually existed. You just start looking and searching.
I didn’t shoot any interviews on camera, so the ones that you see are generally from TV shows that each person did. Her father does a TV show, and that’s where he’s talking to camera and her husband comes out of jail and makes a TV program, so generally people have been paid to do these shows, and that’s what we’re showing.
What was your prior connection to her music?
I knew her, and I knew her music, but I’d never seen her live, I’d never met her. She was a local girl, Senna was like this guy from another planet, super human, a godly, spiritual man. Amy’s actually a girl at the bus stop. She was someone just down the road. Even though I don’t think I ever met her, or saw her live, I live in North London and I’ve lived there all my life, so it was trying to make a film about someone that you could have gone to school with.
When first I got the call about the film, I was making another film for the Olympics. It was the first time I was making a film about London and thinking cinematically about the city, so when James called, I thought, okay, finally I’ve found a subject that I can make a film about where I live and about here and now.
She had only died a year previously, and my instinct was this is too soon to make this film. We all knew everything, didn’t we? Then the other side of me was like, well, Senna took 5 years, this could take 10, who knows how long this is going to take to make. Once I started doing the research, the more I found out, the more I saw of her, the more I saw of her early and young, the more I liked her. I thought it’s actually important we make this film now because it’s about the world we live in and what we do to people who are weak or sick or mentally unstable.
Combing through all the footage do you have that eureka moment when you finally realize that, yes, there’s a film here?
Most of the timeI don’t think we’ve got a movie and that it’s an absolute disaster. It’s freeing, but it’s also scary, because I don’t have any script or any agenda at all, no idea. I suppose by now I kind of trust myself to work it out. I know what the ending is and then you’ve got to work backwards,
My job as a directorwas getting to talk to people and getting them to trust me to open up to tell me what was really going on. One by one by one, these hundred people from all over the world actually were in so much pain and had to talk to somebody. Secretly, I think they were waiting for someone to ask because nobody seemed to care. They were all lonely and apart suffering on their own. Once I started speaking to them, much as they hated the fact that they kind of had someone asking questions, they needed to talk and get it out. A 10 minute conversation would become half an hour. Five hours later we’re still talking and then they’d say there’s more, can I tell you more tomorrow and you should talk to her and her and her.
There remain many contradictions in her story – how do you tease out the truth?
With this film it was the quantity of people saying the same thing. It’s not just me taking an opinion about someone, I’m looking at the footage saying I see a lot of this material again and again and again. There are a lot of these TV shows, I’m showing you one. There are a lot of books, there are a lot of magazine articles, there area lot of newspaper articles, it went on and on and on. I was aware of it, it was happening at home, there’s a radio show, there’s a lot. It’s going on now, someone’s just spoke to me, says he’s going to be in the jazz festival doing someone.
There are already those who feel that their version of the story is not being told
The film’s about Amy. The problem with her life is that it all became about other people at various points. Everyone wanted to get their piece of her. My job is to make sure I’m about her, to be true to her, Everyone’s talking about someone else because they want it all to be about them.
One of the more interesting things about the doc is that in some ways we become complicit in watching her downfall, especially watch the paparazzi footage that caused her so much pain now standing in to help tell her story. Is there an ethical challenge about paying to use this footage, given how much of it was captured?
I think it’s all about context, it’s about what do you do with that material. Are you using it to say something that then makes a bigger point?
My job is as a director, is to tell a story and use all of the tools. I’m not going to say I’m not going to use the colour blue because the pigment comes from somewhere. I’ve got to use everything to make the bigger point, which is, this is heavy stuff that we all somehow played a part. Those journalists have seen it and they’re having to think about their part of it, because they’re in the shot! I’ve met some of the people who were there and they’re like, oh, we never thought about it, now you’re making me wonder.
The other side is the audience, right? You’re the ones clicking on those videos and the most popular websites are the gossipy ones, right? And the fans who click on them, they don’t know what they’re doing. The fans buy tickets in Serbia to see someone. They think, oh, she might die, so let’s go and see her quickly.
One of the differences between Senna and Amy too is boy, the way that guys are treated and women are treated by the media, absolutely.
The film does shift our gaze from the tabloid Amy and back to the music
And not just the music, the kid. The ordinary, funny kid.
I showed a very early version of the film to some friends just off my laptop. They all start crying at the beginning, and they didn’t cry at the ending. I aked what’s going on here, and they said, “I’ve never seen her happy before.”We’ve seen a lot of Amy, we all liked her, we all know the songs, but never seen her happy.
It’s why watching her perform at the end is excruciating
Sing, just shut up, give me my money back. I’ve seen a lot of concerts like that. It happened all over where people were egging her on to sing Rehab, just sing Rehab, knowing she’s got a glass of wine there.
The use of her own footage is particularly moving, and yet not as affected as some contemporary “selfie” culture.
This footage precedes the iphone. It was shot on people’s mini DVs, I think it’s all a bit too numbing now, it’s all a bit too self-conscious. It’s “I’m filming myself because I might get famous one day”. I think it’s crap. With Senna and with this, they were being filmed but they were not being filmed to use it in a promotional way. Now, it’s all being used knowing that one day you might be famous. I don’t think it has the same quality.
When you listen to the songs now, how differently do they sound?
Have you tried listening to them since seeing the film? Totally different. You almost can’t listen to some of them.
They turn up in a random place and people are dancing to Rehab and you’re asking, “can you hear that? Do you not know what this song’s about?”It changed everything. The songs are a lot deeper. I think there’s so much going on in her lyrics that we just didn’t pay attention.
The other thing isshe’s kind of old school, right? She’s into jazz, she was into all of this old music, she’s very well read, she knew the history of music.
It used to be I bought a record, an vinyl LP, just to read the lyrics. I knew what they were saying, and then I knew where it was recorded, and I knew who was playing on it and I knew their references. Then we went to CDs, and I thought, oh, I’m having trouble, my eyesight’s not very good. Now, you download a song, you know nothing.
I like the idea of kind of going back to the old fashioned way of let’s read the lyrics, let’s understand what this person is singing about because she had something to say. It was just such an obvious thing to put the lyrics in and suddenly there’s a whole other meaning, it’s all there. She was telling us everything about her relationship with men, her family, her parents, herself. “Someone be stronger than me”, “love is a losing game”, “Rehab”, it’s all about something and then there’s another layer.
Another thing I never thought about is she was like a method singer – every single performance is different, depending on her mood at that moment. Jazz musicians change what they’re going to play day to day because they’re in a different mood, but pop singer’s aren’t allowed. The challenge for her was “sing the bloody song, we want to dance to it!” In fact, don’t even sing, just we’ll press play, just dance and move. She wouldn’t do that.
She got caught up into becoming something she wasn’t comfortable being. She wanted to experiment and she wasn’t allowed to change and experiment. The number of music execs that I’ve spoken to said she really annoyed them because she wouldn’t sing the song the same way. She wouldn’t sing the record.
What do you think she would have done if she continued musically?
I think she’d have done a hip hop album, a jazz album. You know what? I’ve thought about it quite a lot, and it’s good to chuck out an album that’s a commercial failure. You need a failure at some point in your life to free you up. If you have a long career, you’re going to have something that everyone thinks“that’s crap”, and you go, good, now I have freedom to do something else.
She was a brilliant writer, and there’s a lot of great musicians who just write. The real money’s in publishing anyway. You don’t have to go through all of the bullshit of performing and all of that crap about how you look. She could have just been quietly writing for other people, that would have been a good way to be creative and not have to worry. There was talk, there were people, she tried to set up a publishing company right at the end and I think that might have been her way to be creative.
What in the end most shocked you about her story?
I’ve heard a lot of bad stuff, and unfortunately it all adds up, it’s just one thing after another after another where you just think, what were they thinking?Could they not see what was happening to her?
Rock and roll is cold.
Yet we come down to the unanswerable question – Would she still have written the same songs if she wasn’t as damaged as she was?
If they’d fixed her, that album would maybe have never have happened. So what’s more important? A lot of art comes out of pain, great paintings, great music, whatever it might be.
I’d rather she were alive and the album didn’t happen.