Amy: Kapadia’s Engaging, Revelatory. Engrossing Docu of Jazz Singer Amy Winehouse

amy_posterAmy, Asif Kapadia’s fascinating, revelatory documentary, captures vividly the life of the brilliant but troubled jazz singer Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the young age of 27.

World premiering at the Cannes Film Festival outside the main competition (as a midnight screening), director Kapadia and producer James Gay-Rees have assembled a highly intimate, and at times painful portrait of one of the most famous women of the past two decdes.

Kapadia and Gay-Rees collaborated on the director’s first  docu, Senna, about Brazilian Formula One champ Ayrton Senna, and in many way, Amy is a logical follow up to that work, using the same methods.

In 2012, they were approached by David Joseph, CEO of Universal Music UK, about making a comprehensive docu on the singer. Universal Music Group (UMG), which released Winehouse’s studio albums under its Island banner, fully financed the film.  UMG granted the men complete creative control, as well as the rights to use her music, including previously unheard material.

A24, which acquired U.S. distribution rights, plans to release this riveting docu in July as counterprogramming to summer’s more typical fare.

amy_2Though he had many offers to make other sports docus, Kapadia looked for a new challenge.  He said he was drawn to Winehouse’s tragic tale as a young woman who hails back from a region he is familiar with, North London.

“Amy felt like someone I could have gone to school with,” he says. “For me, it became personal because the more research I did, the more I realized that she had lived just down the road from me.”

Kapadia immersed himself in Winehouse’s music and early on decided to focus on her music and its intercae with her personal life.  One of the feature’s novelties is to project on screen all the lyrics of Winehouse’s songs as she performs them, in various contexts: small clubs, big concert halls, inside cars.

“It was almost my version of doing a Bollywood film,” he told reporters in Cannes, “where the songs are the narrative and we have to find a way to link between these very personal songs.”

Kapadia also resolved not to rely on the convention of many docus, namely, talking-heads.  Instead, he assembled together Winehouse’s story through archive footage and voiceover interviews with a vast array of friends, family, former lovers, ex-husband, fiancee, music industry professionals, such as her promoter, and even her body guards and drug counselors.

amy_1Some of the archive footage derives from media appearances, studio sessions and live concerts. But the most compelling evidence consists of the private videos supplied by family and friends. As such, they reveal a bright, talented, witty girl, born into a Jewish family (though not much is made of the impact of her ethnic origins on her songs or behavior and values). She was a product of parents who divorced while she was nine, an event that proved traumatic than anyone (including her) expected.

Initially, while approaching people from Winehouse’s life, many had no interest in participating. Those close to her clammed up after her death, devastated by her passing and stung by her treatment at the hands of the mass media.

“Nobody wanted to be involved in this movie,” admits Gay-Rees. “It took a lot of trust building. You try to get in front of the family and talk about it.  Senna was a great selling document, and it helped when we told them we meant to do a piece with sincerity and integrity. But it was a delicate process.”

However, in the end, Kapadia and Gay-Rees were able to involve key figure in Winehouse’s life, including her father Mitch (who comes across as morally dubious in the later sections) and the man hated by many of her close friends and fans, ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil.

“Sometimes it was about saying, ‘Listen, you were close to her. If you don’t put your side of the story, it’s not going to be in the movie.’” Kapadia says that sensitive handling skills were paramount: “There was a lot of distrust and paranoia, and my job as a director was earning the trust from people who had never spoken before, who had been carrying this trauma of what went on, and getting them to open up. One by one, somebody would trust me and say, ‘You should talk to his person.’”

Comparing Amy to Senna, Kapadia says: “Senna has this heroic story in the macho world of race-car driving, but Amy was a young girl who’s not built for fame, not comfortable in the glare and treated quite badly. Because she’s a girl, the media felt entitled to comment on her weight, her look, her hair, her boobs.”

Eventually, Kapadia and his team conducted around 100 interviews. His process was methodical: he would sit with each person in a Soho sound studio and dim the lights or sometimes turn them off completely. “People tend to be very uncomfortable,” says the director. “I’m a fan of the power of speech and imagination and because I’m not filming you, I don’t need to see you.”

amy_3As could be expected, the sessions provoked tears, sorrow, guilt and recrimination. “Everybody would break down at some point,” says Kapadia. “The whole process was a form of therapy for people to get off their chest what they’d been privately carrying.”

The main goal was to show the “real Amy,” as even seasoned entertainment professionals have formed negative opinions of Winehouse, based on her media coverage. One person even said, ‘Why do you want to make a film about a junkie?” “We set out to reeducate people about her because she had almost become a laughing stock,” says Gay-Rees. “A line was crossed by certain media in a pretty unacceptable way.”

The initial assemblage ran several hours in length in rough chronological order, and Kapadia and his editors began to winnow down, working out where the holes are and what they need to fill them. As they went along, and participants were asked to return for second, third and fourth interviews, Kapadia’s interrogation became more pointed.

Controversies during and after shooting

“You can’t make this movie without going to some uncomfortable places,” admits Gay-Rees. “We never had an agenda to say, ‘Right, here is who’s responsible for what happened.’ “It was about trying to show the real person. But in trying to condense ten years into two hours, you can’t represent everything.”

Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, who was interviewed extensively, first saw a cut of the film in late 2014.  But in April, just two weeks before the film’s premiere in Cannes, chose to “disassociate” itself from the film. “I felt sick when I watched it for the first time. Amy would be furious,” said Mitch, who also accused the filmmakers of not sampling enough people from Winehouse’s life and blaming him for her addictions.  But Kapadia says he’s tried to keep the focus of the film on Winehouse’s talent and passion for music.

Winehouse’s boyfriend at the time of her death, Reg Traviss, also has voiced his frustration with the doc, claiming that his presence was mostly cut from the project.

“The story is really about her and her creative period, which was in her earlier years,” says Kapadia, who says Traviss is included in the film, just not as much as in earlier versions. “Sadly, in the last five years of her life, she didn’t make any music. She stopped living, almost, and was stuck in a roadblock when it came to creativity.”

The portrait that emerges benefits from Kapadia’s respectful approach and detached methodology.  While acknowledging her self-destructive personality, they are also quick to demonstrate her supreme talented, charismatic nature, and above all, her being ill-prepared and dysfunctional in handling her superstar fame, especially after the phenomenal global success of her breakthrough album, Back to Black.

“My angle was to make a film that was honest and truthful to Amy,” Kapadia says. “There was a lot of tension, a lot of voices around her that made it difficult for her to deal with issues. I think that is difficult for people to see because it’s turning the mirror around. The person who comes out of it amazingly is Amy and she’s the one I’m interested in.”