Amy: Interview with Asif Kapadia

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A woman with long, dark hair and a beehive hairstyle sits on an armchair in a vintage-styled room. She's wearing a sleeveless black dress and has visible tattoos on her arms. Behind her is a turntable with a record spinning, and the chair has a crocheted cover.
Image © Amy Winehouse via Facebook

Amy shows Amy Winehouse in her own words, with footage and interviews from friends. London Calling spoke to the team behind it.

The much-anticipated documentary Amy, from the team behind the award-winning Senna, is a portrait of Amy Winehouse, told through her own words and lyrics, helped by hours of footage and interviews with those closest to her. The film plays out on the streets of North London, where its director Asif Kapadia also grew up. London Calling spoke to Asif Kapadia, alongside James Gay-Rees (producer) and Chris King (editor) about making the film, and who the real Amy was.

London Calling: What drew you to Amy’s story?

Asif Kapadia: There was an instinctive feeling that there was a story there. I liked her singing, I had her CD’s but I just had a lot of questions about the way things turned out. I didn’t really understand why she was performing when she wasn’t well. And also I’m a North Londoner, I grew up very close to where she lived. It felt like a local story. I wanted to make a film about an area that I grew up in. I haven’t really made many films in London. That felt like an important part of the story, the city.

LC: This film, like Senna, ends with an untimely and tragic death. People have long been questioning whether this was ‘inevitable’...

AK: I think all the issues were there but it’s hard to say. From everyone that I’ve spoken to, the earlier you try the more you might succeed. My feeling is that if she hadn’t have become mega famous she might still be around. She may well have still been self-destructive. But something seems to change when she becomes super famous in 2007. I think that multiplies everything and she just stops talking.

LC: The film lingers for a long time on the early years...

AK: You see her at the beginning, and you see how funny she is and how intelligent she is and how bright eyed and healthy. You think ‘oh my god’, how did it go from there to there in such a short space of time. That for me was when I thought we have a film because I really like that girl that I’m seeing.

LC: How did the story of the film emerge?

James Gay-Rees: The story was much more amorphous than Senna, where the narrative was clear. This was up for grabs. She only has two records, and she sort of disappears for the last three or four years. It was a much more internal film about what makes her tick. It becomes an investigation of what causes her to drink herself to death at 27. You look for the clues, family relationships, and insecurities and track those through her issues and build a picture of this perfect storm. You have all these issues and you pour the petrol of fame on top of it. It was a hard one to grapple with, and there were plenty of sleepless nights. I can’t understate how torturous this film has been to make, technically, emotionally and narratively. It’s been an absolute monster to get right. This movie is more focused on the human condition than Senna, in a very extreme way.

LC: How did you manage to shape that story from all the footage?

Chris King: Our first question is, who is this girl? All the footage that comes in, that’s the eye.

AK: Our job is to figure out what the story is. Her songs were always going to be the spine, unravelling the songs and understanding them. If it’s not moving the story forwards, then it doesn’t go in the film.

LC: Why is her music so central to the way you tell the story?

AK: Because the music is why she’s famous and the music is great. But also because once you understand the lyrics are personal then you realise to understand her life you just need to understand the songs. When she made Frank, she gave quite a lot of interviews; by the time she did Back to Black she gave very few interviews. Her voice was most prominent when we used the song lyrics. I always thought this was going to be a musical, where the songs are the narrative. I didn’t know before that the incident behind Rehab really happened. It’s about Nick [Skymansky, her first manager]. We all know who Nick is because he’s the guy that tried to make her go to Rehab.

LC: Mitch Winehouse has been critical of the film. What do you make of that?

J G- R: At the end of the day, we don’t agree with everything he says but we respect his opinion because she was his daughter. Part of the problem is that he probably had more of an idea of what he wanted the movie to be than we did. Family is a big part in anyone’s development, she was vocal about it, she’s the one who says what she says on camera, and we’re not editing her words to get her to say something. It’s painful for people. She was an incredibly complicated, multifaceted human being. As far as we can tell, she presented herself in different ways to lots of different people. They all have contrary recollections of her. We were never going to pin it on one person’s take which is ultimately what he wants because that’s all that matters to him. We respect his point of view but we were trying to make a more rounded film.

CK: For all of them watching it, they’re thinking, could I have done something, how did I let that happen? But for us, our only aim was to shed light on Amy and draw us closer to her, what she was experiencing and how that felt.

J G-R: It’s also important to remember Amy was responsible too. We’re not trying to say these three people are responsible. We’re not saying this person is good and this one is bad, we’re dealing with a really complicated human being who quite often was beyond the pale of what was acceptable. Lots of aspects of her were very contradictory.

AK: We just tried to make the most honest film we could, an honest representation of the research. She writes about him in her songs, she’s the one who says it, who says she’s not comfortable. The film is about her, her story. Somewhere along the way it all got a bit confused and people forgot about her. My aim was to make a film about who she really was, about all her relationships and friendships. It’s about London too, and the entertainment and music industry and journalists. All these people somehow feel guilty; everyone was a part of it. It’s about the audience too. People were lapping up the newspapers, and stories in the tabloids. We’re all a bit complicit.

LC: Have we learnt from it then?

AK: At the beginning people said it was too soon to make the film. Then we started making it, and felt actually it’s important to make this as soon as possible. It’s all quite raw. I feel like we’re in a slightly different world, mainly because phone hacking is out in the open. But I’ve spoken to a lot of journalists who’ve said nothing’s changed. Maybe they just haven’t got a poster girl like her to pin it all on. I’m hoping the film might make a difference, even if just a few people think twice about what they said or did.

This is a crazy story and there’s a lot of dark stuff. I wanted to dispel the bullshit about rock and roll and make it about an ordinary girl. If you make it about the crazy stuff, it’s as if it’s cool to die young. I don’t think it is particularly cool to die young. Take off the wig and the make up and underneath it there’s this kid. I was more interested in that.

LC: What do you want people to come away from the film with?

J G-R: People are coming out of the screenings saying they had no idea how amazing she was. That’s great because she became such a bad joke in this country and all you saw was the headline in the tabloid. I feel quite emotional about the fact that she was one the greatest talents this country had produced for a long time, and she’s gone. If people come out thinking next time, I’m not going to be so quick to put the boot in, that’d be good.

CK: There was a talent there that the world hadn’t recognised. You have to understand her lyrics, and the way she wrote music, and hear that catharsis it gave her. That’s what gave it a power. Tony Bennett puts her in the same row as the other jazz greats, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Diana Washington.

J G-R: There’s a reason why Back to Black was such a massive hit. There’s half a dozen records on that album that are timeless, because there’s such a strong connection to the music, because it’s coming from within her soul. She’s writing about the madness of her life, the highs and lows.

LC: What’s the worst thing someone could say about this film?

J G-R: That we’re not saying anything new about her.

The film is an intense, two-hour complex portrait. The earlier footage hasn’t been seen before, and even the darker moments are led by Amy’s voice and her music, an insight in to her, and not just the fame and the name that took over her life. It will be screened at the East End Film Festival on the 2nd July, followed by a Q & A with Asif Kapadia, the director and a patron of the festival. To book tickets, please see their website.