Early reviews of the new Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia (2010’s Senna), are overwhelmingly positive, but as our Jada Yuan pointed out after seeing it for the first time at Cannes, it’s complicated. Some of Winehouse’s closest friends were initially reluctant to be interviewed for the film because they thought not enough time had passed since the singer’s death. Mitch Winehouse, Amy's father, has publicly disassociated himself from Kapadia’s effort, calling it “horrible” and a “disgrace.” The director maintains that the documentary is a faithful depiction of the events that led to Winehouse’s death in 2011 at her home in London, and that his only agenda was to tell the truth. We spoke with him recently about the biggest challenges he faced in getting the film to theaters.
1. Toeing the line between authorized and unauthorized.
“Amy is somewhere in the middle of authorized and unauthorized,” says Kapadia. “It was authorized because you can’t make a film about a musician without the music, and that means getting the publishing, getting the record company, getting the estate, everyone has to agree before you make the film. The only way we could make this film is if everybody agreed and signed off on it. So I assumed that it would be called an 'authorized version.' Then you say, ‘Well, look, we’re only going to make the film if you leave us alone and let us make an honest film, and we’re going to interview everybody. There should be no censorship, there should be nobody saying, ‘No, you can’t talk to that person.’” Kapadia says he was given the approval and freedom he required. He interviewed over 100 people, dug up unseen footage, and mined Amy's lyrics for additional clues. In the process, he discovered disturbing truths about her personal and professional life. “A lot of people around her made decisions I feel were not necessarily best for Amy. So, after we make the film, certain people go, ‘Well, we’re not happy with it.’ Well, this is the reality of what was going on.”
2. Dealing with Amy’s dad.
Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, was interviewed for the film, and Kapadia says he was cooperative — up to a point. “[Her father] sees the world in a slightly different way than everyone else,” says Kapadia. “His interview was fine. It was very honest and very straight. I read some stuff somewhere where he said people were storming out of interviews. No one stormed out of an interview. There was no tension anywhere. Everyone spoke, everyone signed the release, everyone was happy with what they said or else we wouldn’t be able to use the interviews.” Kapadia says the film just “shows what went on.” He wouldn’t use the word “villain” to describe Mitch Winehouse, but “it’s not a fiction film where you say he’s a good guy and he’s a bad guy. The film is about Amy. It’s called Amy. We’re just trying to take the attention back to her. The problem with a lot of people is that they want the attention to be about them.”
3. Getting her closest friends and loved ones to speak.
There are several heartbreaking moments in the film where Amy’s closest friends struggle through interviews, fighting back tears while describing how Amy was encouraged to continue working when fame and touring only exacerbated her drug and alcohol abuse. “They were all in pain,” says Kapadia. "They were feeling angry, guilty. They were making themselves sick, actually. The people I met, you could look at them and tell they were carrying this burden, carrying this pain. They felt that nobody stopped it. That’s the truth. The machine just rolled on. She was onstage again and again, doing these concerts, and it was like, 'Look at the state of her. Can nobody see? Why is everyone laughing at her? Why is everyone making fun of her when actually she desperately needs help?'"
Kapadia says 95 percent of the people he spoke to for the documentary had never given an interview, never written a book, never been on TV, never spoken to a journalist. “When I got in touch, they said, ‘I don’t want to know you, don’t care who you are. Don’t trust you.’ But, I talked to one guy, Nick Shymansky, her former manager, and he says, ‘I don’t think you should be making this film, I think it’s too soon, but I really liked Senna.’ He was the first person that opened up."
4. Being as accurate as possible.
“A lot of people said this film was never going to get made, there’s no way they’re going to let you make this film, there’s no way this film will ever come out,” says Kapadia. “Nick said that all the way through. So, we had to be as rigorous as we could. You have to be really careful because people say things and you realize they weren’t even there and they have a certain way with language where they kind of create a story. Everything in the film had to be backed up by two or three different people. It was really rigorous.”
5. Finding the material.
Much of the previously unseen footage featured in Amy was filmed on handheld digital recorders during the early ’00s. But Kapadia can't help but wonder what other material was out there. “Somewhere along the way, a lot of material has been lost because we don’t have physical copies, we don’t have VHS tapes, we don’t have photographs. You just have digital memories. That became a real challenge. When you’re making a film like this and you’re doing it entirely out of archive, you’re relying on people looking after their stuff. Journalists back in the day would have a cassette tape. A lot of people in my previous film kept all of their audiotapes and interviews, but nowadays you just delete them, or at some point they get lost. And of course you should delete them! We never have enough memory so we’re always deleting things, but you never know when that thing you delete is the thing that you needed to keep because one day some idiot is going to call you and say, 'Hey, do you have that interview with Amy Winehouse?'”
6. Uncomfortable interviews with her ex-husband.
Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy’s ex-husband, allegedly introduced her to crack cocaine. Their relationship was toxic, but the film is almost forgiving toward Fielder-Civil. “Blake came from a particular place,” says Kapadia. “He didn’t have a great upbringing. Someone who cuts themselves at 9, stuff has happened to them. His body is covered in scars. It was very uncomfortable meeting. Before the film, everybody knew about him as being the one to blame for everything. I think, after the film, he doesn’t deny anything. He’s almost come out on the other side where he admits he’s screwed up a lot. I think what we learned making the film is, there were a lot of people who made poor decisions. It was him, definitely, but a lot of other people as well. A lot of other people could have helped or stopped things. It’s not just one person who is responsible. He went to jail [for drug possession], and when he went to jail, Amy’s health got worse. If he was a bad guy, it should have got better, but it didn’t. That period after he went to jail, her descent is really rapid."
7. Portraying the public’s role in Amy’s demise.
“I’m pretty sure the people in the U.S. have never seen those images of young Amy. That intelligent, funny, special girl. Bright-eyed, healthy-looking. Even in England, people haven’t seen her. She was great, she was a good kid, she was human.” But, says Kapadia, the heart of the film is about bullying and getting people to understand how picking on someone is dangerous. “The audience is partly to blame for me,” he says. “The paparazzi may have been hounding her and the media may have been making fun of her, but we laughed and we clicked on the videos, and we commented on it and shared it. It just became so easy to make fun of this kid. She was just a kid who was taking it all in, and the more pressure and the more nastiness, the more she self-medicated to numb the pain. There’s a point in the story where I think the mirror turns back to us and we think, We knew what was going on, and we all took part in it. We were all complicit. I just hope we think twice before we treat someone the way we treated Amy because it will happen again. It’s probably happening right now. I remember somebody saying to me at the beginning of this film, ‘Why do you want to make a film about a junkie?’ And I just said, ‘That’s exactly why I want to make this film, because you just said that, and I can’t believe you just said that.’”