In the documentary Amy, from filmmaker Asif Kapadia (Senna), we’re immediately shown famed singer Amy Winehouse in a way we’ve never seen her before. The film opens with home video of Winehouse. She’s around 14 years old, smiling with her friends, serenading “Happy Birthday” to the camera. She looks genuinely happy, even healthy. From the outset, the film makes us feel connected to Amy and continues to build this intimacy by taking us through her life and career. We hear the voices of those who knew her, we see archival and personal footage, and we listen to, of course, her music that spelled out everything she was feeling and going through so clearly.
When Winehouse died at age 27 in 2011, very few were surprised; her tragic death seemed almost predictable. The more surprising moments of her life, and the personality seldom seen of Amy in public light, is what the documentary presents in, at times, a haunting fashion. The film’s producer, James Gay-Rees, said they wanted to avoid creating “misery porn” and instead build a portrait of a life unseen. I met with Kapadia to discuss how he became invested in learning more about Winehouse’s life and how he was able to get more than 100 people to open up and share personal experiences and footage with Amy for the film.
What attracted you to the subject of Amy Winehouse?
I liked her music, but I had never seen her live. I didn’t know everything about Amy Winehouse; I’m not a hardcore Amy Winehouse fan, so I didn’t know that much. But I remember thinking, I don’t understand how that happened. I don’t get how that happened and how her story, her journey, happened before our eyes, and nobody stopped it. I don’t know why she’s on stage. I don’t know why she’s lying in the street drunk. I don’t get it. My wife said, “You gotta make this film. You gotta tell this story. She’s an amazing person. She was so influential.” There’s the music, but her style was so influential, her look, vintage look; she was there before anyone, really, doing that. Everyone’s copying this girl who didn’t give a sh*t about style and fashion. Quite a strong female character right from the beginning. The other side of it is I’m a North Londoner. I live and grew up quite close to where she lived. So, there’s this story that’s going on — this major well-known story — of this person going on down the road.
The film begins with very early footage of Amy, her as a young girl. I found that wonderful because, from the beginning, we build this relationship with her. Right from the start, we feel like we already know her in a more intimate way.
The big surprise was that she’s really clever, she’s really funny. You didn’t think that, did you? I didn’t really know that she wrote the songs, and they’re amazing. The lyrics are amazing, and the answers are all there. Everything about her life, she had already written about it. We heard the songs, but we just didn’t pay attention. So, you listen to the words of “Rehab,” and it’s all there. “Love is a Losing Game,” everything’s there. “Stronger Than Me.” For me, that’s what happened. I suddenly understood the lyrics and thought, “Oh, all I have to do is put them on a screen, literally, and you get it.”
After watching Amy, I had to listen to her music, and it changed the experience of hearing her music.
You will never, ever hear those songs in the same way again. You’re not going to dance to “Rehab” in a hurry, are you?
I loved her more.
Good! Because it’s not a given. I haven’t seen the film with an audience that many times, so I’m still figuring out how the audience received it. It’s interesting. Good to hear that. A lot of people say they’ve gone away and listened to the music again. And you hear it now. People listened to it, but they didn’t hear it.
Right, you appreciate her voice — it’s amazing — but it’s so much richer and deeper than that once you know her backstory. Was it challenging sourcing the archival footage?
More than the archive, really, was getting people to trust me to speak. It was in that order, really. I’m making a film about Amy Winehouse, so where do I go? It’s not like I’m adapting a book, and there’s no given book I’m going to use. Who’s the expert? There’s no expert. Who was around the whole time? Nobody. There’s loads of people who were around for an episode, and then they vanished. Then it was someone else, then it was someone else. And I’d meet them, and I’d talk to people. Eventually, they would trust me enough to talk. But at a lot of people said, “I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t talk to journalists, I don’t want anything to do with you, it’s too painful, it’s too soon. Leave me alone.”
Then, one by one, people would meet, and then I would just say, “Let’s just talk.” We’d meet face to face, and my job as a director is to get them to trust me, to get them to open up. So, I don’t have anything, I don’t have a camera, I wouldn’t film their interviews. Then it’d be like, “Give me 10 minutes.” I’d say, “Fine, 10 minutes.” Ten minutes would turn into a half hour, then an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours later, and we’re still talking and they haven’t stopped. And they say, “I want to come back because there’s more I haven’t told you.” Then, it became something where they had to speak to get this stuff off their chests because they hadn’t spoken to anyone. Most of the people in the film have never given an interview, never been on TV, never written a book, or sold a story or whatever. They were all privately suffering because they were all witnessing what was going on and felt like nobody was stopping it. Once they had spoken to me, then they said, “Well, you remember how I said I didn’t have any footage? I actually have this footage,” or, “I have this photograph,” or, “I have this answering phone message.” Then, footage was coming in bits and pieces from around the world, and that’s where this mosaic of images came about.
What do you think it is about you that made them comfortable?
I don’t know. I’m a pretty simple guy and pretty straight. I just kind of talk to people. But, really, it’s something that’s part of my personality, my character, I suppose, where they just felt comfortable to talk and I wasn’t going to judge them or use it against them.
And I’m sure it helps that you’re not filming them.
That would be the worst thing ever. They would not have spoken to me if I had a camera in front of them. The camera is the thing that can kill that originality because I’m not comfortable on camera. I don’t know if you are. Nobody is! Why do we film people anyway? There are people who like it, and good for them. But I don’t. Why would I want to speak honestly and open my heart to a camera? Also, there’s nobody else in the room when I do these interviews. I ended up talking to 100 people around the world, and then you get an idea of how this adds up and how the dots connect, and you go, “Ah, that’s what that song’s about. Now I get it. This is what she’s talking about here, and that’s how that works.” I had a really brilliant editor and researcher. It was not just me, it was this team of people I worked with on Senna and on this and on other films who then find the material and put it all together.
Her parents reveal so much to you in the film. And it’s been remarked that her father is shown in a less than ideal light. How was it talking to them?
I spoke to her mum, and she was a very sweet person and very honest about her own role. She said she didn’t have a mother who was motherly to her. She wasn’t particularly motherly to her own daughter. She’s rather upfront and honest about it. I spoke to her father, her friends, her husband, I met Blake. There’s quite a few people. You’re thinking, “This is going to be tricky.” But, actually, they’re ordinary people who’ve been through this situation, which is quite a painful process. Some people have come out of it on the other side. And some people haven’t still. I think they’re still in denial, whatever it might be. People who might have an issue with the film, I hope with a bit of time will look at it and go, “Well, at the beginning, Amy Winehouse did not have a particularly good reputation around the world. She was made fun of, she was mocked, people thought she was stupid, they thought she was just a junkie.” And now, people see the film and, actually, she was really intelligent, she was beautiful, she was sweet, she was a lovely person. They fall in love with her.
So often people comment that she seemed to live a terrible life. Did you ever think that, and did working on the film change your opinion on her life?
I don’t know if anyone has a terrible life. Everyone has good and bad moments, ups and downs. When I showed the film to some friends early on, in the beginning of the film, they started crying. I asked, “What’s going on there? What’s happening?” And they said, “You know, I’ve never seen her happy before.” That made them cry. That was interesting to me. This idea of a girl with girlfriends, messing around, having a laugh. Just ordinary. The ordinariness was the bit that was a revelation to people. She had a lot of good times. She was happy. It wasn’t all dark.
After spending so much time watching archival footage of her, home movies, and speaking with those who were close to her, do you feel like you know her? Or does it make you wish you could have known her?
When I’m making these sort of films, there’s always a point where you can’t stop thinking about them and dreaming about them. They become a part of your life. So, now what happens is I’m walking down the street, and I see someone and think, “Oh God, it’s Amy. She’s there.” She’s become a part of life now because I’ve spent so much time thinking about her and being around people who knew her. Weirdly enough, I have met her now.
(Amy opens July 3 in selected cities and nationwide on July 10. Check out an exclusive new clip below.)