Asif Kapadia knew that making a documentary about Amy Winehouse was a tall order. The late singer’s tragically short life was heavily covered by the tabloids and she succumbed to alcohol poisoning only four years ago. Not only that, but the ongoing vitality of her music makes it seem like she never really went away.
None of these obstacles seemed insurmountable to Kapadia. For one thing, he and producing partner James Gay-Rees are the film-makers behind Senna. The double Bafta-winning 2010 documentary about the late Grand Prix driver Ayrton Senna was that rare thing: a motorsports film that wowed viewers with no interest in motorsports. For another, Kapadia – a slight, mild-mannered north Londoner – is not a man to be denied.
“I’m kind of easygoing,” says the director over an espresso in a central London private member’s bar. “But I’m also tenacious – if I know someone’s important, I make it very clear I cannot make the film without them.”
The results of Kapadia’s rigour and drive are all on the screen. Amy (in cinemas from today) is a moving, powerful film that manages to be both revelatory and also a salutary reminder of Winehouse’s talents – the ones that tend to be overshadowed by the chaotic scenes of her drink-and drug-fuelled last years.
Kapadia was contacted in 2012, a year after Winehouse’s death, by the boss of her record label. Would he be interested in making a Senna-style film about the singer whose second album, the worldwide smash Back to Black, has sold over 20 million copies?
Kapadia recounts his opening remarks: “the only way we’re going to make this film is if you just let us get on with it. Let us speak to everyone. We know how the story ended – there’s no big shock. But we don’t know how we got there. And that means talking to friends, management, family, ex-boyfriends, everyone. Is that fine? Yes? You sure? Yes? Because it’s not worth doing it otherwise.”
A crucial early collaborator was Nick Shymansky, the young music manager who discovered Amy as a 16-year-old with preternaturally gifted jazz vocal chops. But he initially baulked at the idea. Undaunted, Kapadia persuaded Shymansky to visit him in his Soho edit suite. “Along one long wall we had, like in a bad cop show, Post-It Notes, then lines between them, trying to connect the dots – what is the bloody story? Nick walked in and could see we were doing it seriously. And so he started to talk. And once he started to talk, he couldn’t stop.”
Shymansky shared his memories, and vouched for the film-maker to other intimates of the singer. In a way, he explains, it was his opportunity to speak up for – and perhaps speak to – the friend from whom he’d parted professionally in 2006, a few months before the release of Back to Black.
It was Shymansky who, to paraphrase Winehouse’s signature song, had tried to make her go to rehab, only for others to encourage her to say “no, no, no”.
“To sum it up, it was tough love,” he says now of that line-in-the-sand split. “I was way too emotional about her. I couldn’t stand the fact that she was doing heavy, heavy drugs and getting really f***ed up all the time. I was constantly picking up the pieces. But the biggest reason was, I was so convinced that if I pulled tough love, within three or four weeks she’d be in rehab and we’d be working together again. I had that very naive view.”
“The reason I did this is actually to focus on her brilliance”, Shymansky reiterates. “The dark side is so well documented, available and overly publicised. The one thing you know when you go and see this film is that Amy’s going to die. And I felt that for a long time before the end came.”
Shymansky also showed Kapadia where to go next. The director had to talk to Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, Winehouse’s childhood friends. One by one, those closest to Winehouse agreed to speak. In the end “about 100 people” were interviewed. Meanwhile, Kapadia’s team “just collected visuals – everything and anything that existed”. By the team’s reckoning, they viewed 10 to 15,000 hours of footage.
One person who’s very much present is Amy’s father, Mitch. He appears in the film via footage from the many interviews and documentaries he participated in during her lifetime, and new testimonials. But having seen the film prior to its Cannes premiere, Mitch distanced himself from Amy. “I was there every day,” he said in a statement. “And if I wasn’t there, she’d phone seven times a day. And there’s no sense of that in the film and that’s what’s disappointing.”
I suggest to Kapadia that Mitch Winehouse’s upset may be partly attributed to the fact that he doesn’t emerge too well from the film. “Honestly, you’d have to ask him,” he says evenly. “All I would say is that it’s not about him. And he’s not the only person who did negative things,” he says, referring to members of Winehouse’s business team, who seemed to keep her touring and performing when she was clearly in no fit state to do so.
“There are a lot of people who seemed to make bad choices that were not good for her. And those people have all looked at the film and said: ‘I’m not happy with what you’ve shown – but I did do that. And I messed up.’”
Ultimately, Kapadia is clear on where his responsibilities lie. “The clue is in the title: that’s who it’s about. I think people want to make it about them, and it’s not, and it drives them nuts.”
“Amy is not someone people know was funny and intelligent – most people don’t even know she wrote her songs. So I feel like I owe it to her to try to reveal who she really was. This film is heavy, it’s a dark film,” he acknowledges, “but, man, was she great.”