Chasing Amy Winehouse

By Dorri Olds 06/24/15

The Fix Q&A with Asif Kapadia, director of the new documentary about Amy Winehouse. 

Image: 
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As Kapadia did with Formula 1 race-car driver Senna Ayerton, for the film Amy he thoroughly researched, and conducted interviews, then put together a captivating series of archives that includes never-before-seen clips from friends closest to the singer.

Winehouse, with her bulbous beehive, black cat eyeliner and soul of an old black jazz singer, died July 23, 2011, at the age of 27. With her death went all the promise of years-to-come with that deep sultry voice and angry, clever, funny lyrics. Every song from the only two albums she made, sit in my iTunes library. It’s painful to listen to them now. That is, until this film provided one last connection with her. 

The movie is a poignant encapsulation of this original girl next door turned celeb chanteuse. We all saw her early death becoming inevitable as we snapped our fingers and sang along to "Rehab." Before seeing Amy, I did not know about the singer’s bulimia, which Kapadia describes in our interview as “hiding in plain sight.”

Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, comes across as the blood-sucking leech he always seemed to be. Remember that line in the song "Rehab" where Amy sings, “My Daddy thinks I’m fine,”? Here’s a father who had virtually abandoned his daughter and her mother, only to become Johnny-on-the-spot when he viewed Amy as his cash cow.

It’s heart-wrenching to be reminded of how much trust she put into two men she should’ve run farthest from: her cocaine- and heroin-addicted husband Blake Fielder-Civil and her questionable dad. She craved them both the same way she craved alcohol—through a misguided belief that they were her security, not the toxicity that was killing her.

Mitch became a fixture in Amy’s life only after her career took off. Before that, Amy’s childhood friends described Mitch as a mostly absentee parent. Amy’s mom, Janis, who’d struggled as a single parent, admits in the movie that she did not have the ability to stand up to her daughter.

Technically, this is a documentary but it doesn’t feel that way. While Amy’s songs play, viewers are treated to seeing her lyrics written on pages from her journals. Words are scribbled out and rewritten. The notes serve as a keyhole view into Winehouse’s musical process.

There’s a part in the film where Winehouse and Tony Bennett are rehearsing a duet. It’s painful to see her nervousness in front of one of her idols but he is so tender towards her. Bennett describes her as a true jazz singer in the same vein as greats like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

The Fix caught up with Asif Kapadia to talk about his must-see movie, Amy.

Did you have any difficulties getting interview subjects to participate?

Yeah, the big battle of the film was getting people to meet and open up. The film began with audio interviews. The first person who spoke to me was Nick [Shymansky], Amy’s first manager. We got along. He liked Senna and said, “Look, if you hadn’t made that, I wouldn’t even be talking to you. But I did like that film. I did say to my girlfriend as we walked out of that film, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day someone made a film like that about Amy?’ Now you’re calling me, so I’m annoyed, because I don’t think this film should be made. I think it’s too soon, too painful. But because you made that film, and because I said that, I’ll meet you.” 

We started to talk. It is intimidating filming people—sitting in a room, a microphone, the two of us. The light was harsh. We’d sit in the darkness with no agenda. People who didn’t want to speak would say, “I’ll give you five minutes.” It’d become an hour, two hours, then four hours later, they’re still talking. Everyone walked out feeling a bit better. It became this process of getting stuff off their chest, all the pain they’d witnessed.

Was there a connection in your decision to make Senna and Amy?

It’s a coincidence more than anything. Obviously, both films we know the ending. With a fiction film, it’s always about the ending but with these docs, it’s about the journey and who they were as people. Senna’s death was like an act of God. With Amy, we all knew it was going to happen. It wasn’t a shock when I heard she’d died [but] it’s sad that nobody stopped it.

There’s a mysticism surrounding certain deaths. Did you experience anything strange while working on this film?

Yes, all the time. My instinct at the beginning was in making a film because she felt like the girl next door. I find out that I went to the same school as her parents and they lived down the road. Friends of mine went out with Amy but they’d never spoken about it. The school opposite my house now is where her pianist learned piano. There’s this weird thing. She was always around. I never met her. I never saw her live, but she’s been there. She keeps turning up again when you least expect it. It happens constantly. It does your head in.

When you spend time making these films, you start thinking a lot about [the subjects]. You start dreaming about them. With Senna, everyone around the world loved this guy. People contacted me all the time and said, “How can I help? What can I do?” With Amy it was the opposite. Nobody wanted to talk. Reading between the lines, it was a lot of, “What are you going to do for me?”

You could see it was difficult being Amy. There were a lot of people who didn’t get along, who disliked one another and blamed one another.

Asif Kapadia. Photo via Dorri Olds.

What did you learn while making the film?

I had no idea she was so intelligent and so funny. You would have liked to hang out with her. You wish you’d met her. You think you could be mates. It kept turning up. People who knew her would say, “That person that everyone saw on stage. That’s not who she was. The real Amy was so different.”

Everyone I met would cry. Even if they met her only once, they would start crying. There was a moment, a connection, where they fell in love with her. When you were with her, you were the only one. I thought, “How am I going to get this across?” Then footage from Lauren [Gilbert] came along where you see Amy showing you around her apartment on holiday and it’s hilarious messing around. With Nick, there’s that footage in the cab when she’s flirting with him.

How did the participants feel about the film?

Everyone else who took part said it’s very honest. They’re not comfortable with everything—there’s a lot of guilt [and] anger. There is one person who keeps saying the film is not honest.

Mitch Winehouse?

He is saying it’s not honest but the film is a very honest portrayal of what was going on.

Were you surprised by the bulimia? 

Yeah. Of course, once you hear about it then there are like 10 people who witnessed it. It’s hiding in public. Every interview [with Amy] was in a restaurant. She was always eating but she was always losing weight. That food was not staying in her body. So, I [became] aware of it and then it came up again and again. It’s such a problem right now with young girls.

After the film, I read it was the bulimia that put a strain on her heart.

Yeah, that mixed with the alcohol mixed with the drugs. Alcohol was the biggie, and mixed with bulimia made her weak. That’s what her doctor said.

What is your process with telling a story through archival images?

Senna took five years and that was the one where we were trying to work out the style of making these films. This one took about two and a half years. In this film, the difficulty was getting people to talk and to be honest. Once they started to speak, people would say, “Initially, I told you I didn’t have any footage but, actually, I have these photos on my phone or I have this answering [machine] message.” The way into the material was the trust that came from talking. It was a hard process. 

What’s it like for you to watch the film with an audience?

It’s a heavy film at times but there’s laughter. She’s amazing. I think the main thing is people come out [of the movie] loving her. That was the main job, if there was a job. She had such a bad rep. People liked the records and knew the songs, but they didn’t like her. Then I think the biggest thing is you come out [knowing] she was great. We ask ourselves, when was I making that joke at a dinner party about [her]? We all did. Somehow we’re all complicit. In London, more so because it was all going on down the road. People tried and couldn’t get to her, but others didn’t try hard enough.

Your movie Amy left me shaken. I can’t imagine what it did to you.

There were lots of moments when we’d walk out of interviews and go, “God, are we ever going to [get this made]?” People would say, “They’re never going to let you make this film.” Nick said right until the end, he never believed this film would get released. But the truth had to come out.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing a drama now to get away from these archive films. I should be editing it right now. I popped out for a sandwich and now I’ve been away for a week. It’s called Ali and Nino, and I’m at the beginning. It will come out next year. 

Amy will be released on July 3, 2015. Rated R. 128 min.

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about the rise and fall and rise of a gangster cop.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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