A new documentary about late pop star Amy Winehouse has split opinion and upset her family. Fiona Leckerman watches Amy and speaks to the creative team behind the film, which features unseen archive footage.
I can’t underestimate how tortuous this film has been to make both technically and emotionally; it has been a monster to get right,” sighs producer James Gay-Rees as he discusses the most anticipated film release of the year.
Amy is a feature-length documentary about the life and premature death of the phenomenally talented singer Amy Winehouse. The film has been equally showered with praise by critics and publicly dismissed by her father, Mitch Winehouse.
Since Universal Music first approached the team behind the award-winning film Senna to work on a retrospective movie chronicling Amy’s life, the ride has been far from smooth. Director Asif Kapadia and video editor Chris King also join in the conversation about the film they collectively hope will show who this north London Jewish girl really was.
To say the film is magnificent would be an understatement. It is simply the most extraordinary account of one person’s life put on to film in recent history.
From the opening shots to the final credits, we are transported into the world of Amy Winehouse, magnetised by her distinctive voice. It is impossible to look away or close off your senses to the talented, tragic, emotional, heartbreaking, silly, humorous, dark and dirty life that was hers. Constructed entirely out of footage collected from friends, family, YouTube clips and beyond, Kapadia follows a linear structure, starting with Amy as a teenager.
It is clear the film selected has been done so to show Amy’s multifaceted and complex personality. We see her laughing with her friends, flirting with the camera, singing… We get to see the girl behind the wigs, make up, drink and drugs that muddied the later part of her life.
Kapadia says: “The film is an honest representation of all our research and it’s my version of a musical where the songs are the narrative.”
Lyrics are placed on screen next to the action, which highlights the significance of her songs. “Once you understand that the lyrics are personal, you realise that to understand her life, you just have to listen to the songs,” explains Kapadia.
Coupled with the footage, the songs become even more pronounced. We discover the lyrics from Back to Black are the story behind Amy’s break up from Blake Fielder-Civil [her ex-husband] – “We only said goodbye in words, I died a hundred times, you go back to her and I got back to…” As the song plays, her best friend narrates the story of how Blake broke up with her via text.
The song resonates with meaning. The same can be said for Rehab, which catapulted her to fame. Kapadia, who interviewed many of her close family and friends, admits it wasn’t until he heard Amy’s first manager and friend Nick Shymansky’s description of his relationship with the singer that he realised that Amy wrote Rehab about Nick. It was this revelatory moment that shaped the narrative of the film.
“Our job was to figure out the story and her songs were really the spine; in the unravelling of them and understanding who and what she was talking about, whilst finding a way to visualise it, we found our film.”
King explains this as the marrying of the spoken interviews with the footage. “It was a messy, organic learning-as-you-go-along process,” he says. It is evident that the process of the film was about what made Amy tick. “It was like an investigation; we looked at what her issues were that fundamentally caused her to drink herself to death at the age of 27,” says Gay-Rees. “It’s hard to grapple with the idea that if you have all these issues of bulimia and depression and then you pour the petrol of fame and money and success on top, a person is bound to explode.”
The film does not shy away from the inevitable, staying faithful to the characters it follows. At Amy’s funeral, Kapadia lets the film linger on the hunched broken image of Shymansky crumpled in grief.
This poignant moment works well to express the shared feeling of guilt carried by those close to her and the regret that more could have been done to help her. Even Kapadia confesses: “Maybe people made decisions that were not right for her at the time, maybe taking her out of the limelight would’ve been the right thing for Amy.”
Perhaps watching these mistakes immortalised on film is what upsets Mitch, who doesn’t come across as the villain he implies the film makes him out to be, but he certainly was not her saviour.
Amy is a documentary that neither criticises nor provides judgement on any of these factors, it is purely a collection of her voice, songs, lyrics and performances pieced together to form a whole.
Fellow north Londoner, Kapadia reflects: “I think the film is also about us and the city, the entertainment industry, it’s about her friendships and relationships and it’s about the audience, how we played a part too.”
So as we are played out by the band, the memories that no doubt will jar in our minds are that of the diminutive Jewish girl with the big voice who had no desire to be famous and only ever wanted to sing.
• Amy is on general release nationwide from tomorrow
Clockwise from top: Amy Winehouse, a larger than life personality who only ever wanted to sing, and pictured on stage; with her best friend Juliette Ashby. The award-winning artist died age 27