Asif Kapadia’s controversial new film is painful to watch, but its true value lies in the number of new fans it will make
When Amy Winehouse passed away in 2011 at the age of 27, the devastation was palpable. Granted, the last few years of her life had been spent battling a very public addiction to drugs and alcohol – the vampiric British press had seen to it we all knew about that, and the public had eaten it up in feeding frenzy. But news of her death was met with disbelief. Why hadn’t somebody done something? How had this been allowed to happen? These questions seemed to hang, flailing in the air.
Like many musicians who had faced similar problems, Winehouse’s was too often allowed to overshadow her ice-clear talent: that Marlboro and cognac voice, that unfettered, witty lyricism, and the way she flitted between a gobby North London girl with a pool cue in one hand, and a jazz-inflected, Shangri-La soul gal that swung between vulnerability and power all in the same line.
And then, just four years after her death, director Asif Kapadia announced that he’d be making a documentary about the singer. The project came with the blessing and input of Winehouse’s family and friends, who had initially made a pact not to speak about her. This news brought with it a new set of fundamental questions: why had her family and friends agreed to do this? Was four years too soon? And what good would it do prying into her story when it was readily available in her own words, through the lyrics of her music? Given that the media seemed complicit in her tragic fate, shining the spotlight even more closely now seemed to straddle the line between unethical and unnecessary.
Thankfully, AMY is a film that appears to do justice to the ‘truth’ about Winehouse, if such a thing can be said to exist. Woven together from interviews with Amy, her friends and family, the film benefits greatly from personal footage recorded of the singer at home and on tour. “Her family filmed everything, so it’s a coincidence that we managed to get this much footage,” says Kapidia. “Nick (Godwyn), her manager, filmed her too – she was quite natural on camera, so you would.”
Even in her darkest moments in the film, Winehouse retains an intriguing and brilliant flair that is pinpointed as a driving force behind her music. “All news is good news,” she said in an interview in 2007. “If one person reads the paper and thinks, ‘What? She punched who? She said what? She must be mad! I’m going to buy her album because she sounds nutty’ – if one person does that, then that’s cool.” The words are freighted with tragic meaning now, but Winehouse’s no-nonsense charisma means that anyone coming into the film cold will be a fan by the time the credits roll.
A few months before its release, Winehouse’s family publically withdrew their support for the film. “The narrative is formed by the testimony of a narrow sample of Amy’s associates, many of whom had nothing to do with her in the last years of her life,” they said in a statement to People. “It is both misleading and contains some basic untruths.” Their objections are primarily focused on the portrayal of Winehouse’s father, Mitch, who told The Guardian, “(The film’s makers) are trying to portray me in the worst possible light.” And certainly, it’s hard to deny that Mitch doesn’t come off very well. There’s one excruciating scene when Amy is in St Lucia, hiding out from the paparazzi and madness back home. She invites her dad to come and join her, but he brings a camera crew along and tells her off for being unenthusiastic about taking selfies with strangers. While it is blindingly obvious the love is there, you can’t help but question Mitch’s priorities, and the priorities of othersaround her.
“There was no agenda going in, and there was no agenda coming out. I owe it to her to be fair because it’s her story as she’s the artist” – Asif Kapadia
Kapadia, for his part, insists that his film offers a fair portrayal of Winehouse. “Everyone else involved in the film has now seen it and they have all said it’s honest and that’s the real her and that’s what was going on,” he said. “The film is like the essence of, and a conflation of, all the footage we saw. There was no agenda going in, and there was no agenda coming out. I owe it to her to be fair because it’s her story as she’s the artist. It’s about all the people who come into her circle, but first of all it’s about her.”
And while the film may be uncomfortable for those it paints as complicit in Winehouse’s addictions and eventual death, there is little doubt that these are ideas that need to be brought to light. “She was an easy one to write articles about as she was always out and there was always madness going on around her,” says Kapadia. “She kept providing footage, news stories and hits. Everyone got something out of it, but the person who got the least out of it was her. I’m sure the same situation is happening right now somewhere. I’m a daydreamer and I’m hoping that people will think about their part in it all, and how they were complicit, I guess. I live in hope that people will change.”
Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse’s ex-husband, is also portrayed in a less than flattering light, with much of the footage focusing on how he introduced her to new drugs and enabled her addiction. “Blake has seen it and he thinks it’s honest,” Kapadia tells me. “He admits what he’s done in the sense that he was a part of her life and inspired a lot of records, but also took her down a certain path. He doesn’t deny it, although he’s not comfortable with this fact for obvious reasons.”
I ask him why he thinks Winehouse’s friends and family decided to break their pact and speak to him for the film. “I think that, once they started to talk, they realised they needed to talk,” he says. “This terrible thing had happened, and nobody seemed to take any responsibility for it. In fact, it appeared like it was all her responsibility. It became almost like therapy for them to talk. They have a lot of love for Amy and they wanted the ‘real Amy’ to come out. I hope the audience sees the real Amy, who is that funny, sharp, intelligent, beautiful and healthy, amazing artist who could just pick up a guitar and blow you away. It’s quite impressive when you see her, and this is just on really crappy home video footage.”
And despite the inevitably tragic nature of his subject matter, Kapadoa doesn’t short-change Winehouse’s exceptional talent. “I hadn’t realised she was so brilliant at writing, or that she was such a good guitarist,” he says. “There was also her humour, her intelligence and her darkness that came with it, and manifested itself in the film. During the process, I fell in love with her because I liked her as a person first and foremost, and now I’m a fan. She was sharp and really cool. I loved hearing her sing those acoustic songs on a small stage – the rawness of it all is really quite impressive.”
Ultimately, documenting music’s fallen idols is never going to be an easy task. The director has to tread a fine line between love letter and luridness, delivering a fair and unflinching portrayal without upsetting friends and family. AMY manages to do (nearly) all of these things, ensuring that her story will live on long after we’re all gone as well.