The documentary about the loss of a music icon before their time is all too common a story in the lexicon of popular music, and it was felt deeply when the world lost the gift that was Amy Winehouse.
In Amy, director Asif Kapadia tracks her story through the people that knew her best and through the songs that predict a downfall that we should have all seen coming. I got the unique chance to sit down with Kapadia while he was in Toronto as we examined the life and the death of this singular musical talent.
Dave Voigt: With the huge number of people you talked to like Blake Fielder and Mitch Winehouse who many people associate with Amy’s death, were they hard to get and even eager to talk?
Asif Kapedia: Those two in particular weren’t that tough to talk to because they wanted to talk, especially right at the beginning. My producer, James Gay-Rees who produced Senna, the previous film that I did, got a call from David Joseph at Universal Music. David asked would we be interested in making a film about Amy Winehouse? James calls me up and I say look, we can only do a film about a musician if we’ve got all of the permission on board, so before we start even thinking about it, you need the music, the publishing, you need the estate, you need everyone to be on board. So actually, the estate and the family, all of them had agreed to the film from the beginning. Part of the conversation was this is only going to work if you just leave us alone. We have to interview everyone. We have to speak to everyone because we all know the ending. Everyone knows how this turned out. We know she was in a bad place for a long time and she died. So this is obviously going to be a heavy film, and we’re going to have to deal with these issues. We’re going to have to ask all of the questions. If you’re happy with that, are we going to make the film? And they understood from the very beginning that was what the film was going to be, it was a given right from the start that we would talk to everyone and we laid that out in our deal for the close to 100 people we talked to.
DV: At what stage did Amy’s father, Mitch pull his support from the film?
AK: It was quite recently, after it was finished.
DV: How hard is it to shape the actual narrative in a film like this?
AK: The starting point for the film was always going to be her songs, and that was from very early on. Once you start looking at the lyrics you start going oh my god, it’s all here. It’s a map, we just don’t know what order it’s in and the songs are almost like the spine holding it all together. In my mind, this was always going to be a musical. You’d have her life, then a song, then her life and then her singing again. Of all the performances, I really liked her acoustic performances where it was just her and a guitar, more than a record, the records feel overproduced to me now and it’s weird to me because her voice was just so magical and I love it. The structure and the spine of the whole film was the songs and then it kind of turned into a type of detective work trying to understand who is she talking about, what does this mean, where’s this, who’s that and talking to people and cross referencing back to the songs. It’s asking; “What does it mean, that song? Oh, it’s about him, oh really”. And then you interview him. And it was just that, kind of following where the story takes you.
DV: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to her music and how it relates to your style of filmmaking that much like in Senna you kept the actual interviews to voiceover segments mixed with footage of her?
AK: Senna was actually quite a fight to do without talking heads, and my instinct was that Amy would probably be the same style, but as with Senna I just had no idea whether the footage actually existed. You just start looking and searching. I didn’t shoot any interviews on camera, so the ones that you see are generally from TV shows that each person did. Her father does a TV show, and that’s where he’s talking to camera and her husband comes out of jail and makes a TV program, so generally people have been paid to do these shows, and that’s what we’re showing.
Ultimately, I knew her, and I knew her music, but I’d never seen her live, I’d never met her. She was a local girl, Senna was like this guy from another planet, super human, a godly, spiritual man, but Amy’s actually a girl from the neighborhood that you could have met at the bus stop. She was someone just down the road. Even though I don’t think I ever met her, or saw her live, I live in North London and I’ve lived there all my life, so it was trying to make a film about someone that you could have gone to school with and then reflecting on what happened to them and how something that happened less than a mile from my door. The other issue in all of this is that when first I got the call about the film, I was making another film for the Olympics. It was the first time I was making a film about London and thinking cinematically about the city, so when James called, I thought, okay, finally I’ve found a subject that I can make a film about where I live and about here and now. My first instinct was that it was too soon because she had only died a year previously. We already knew everything, didn’t we? Then the other side of me was like, well, Senna took 5 years, this could take 10, who knows how long this is going to take to make. Once I started doing the research, the more I found out, the more I saw of her, the more I saw of her early and young, the more I liked her. I thought it’s actually important we make this film now because it’s about the world we live in and what we do to people who are weak or sick or mentally unstable and how much we we’re all culpable in making her worse.
DV: While making a film in this style and having to plow through so much footage, do you hit a moment in the process where you can go “eureka” we found our film?
AK: Most of the time I don’t think we’ve got a movie and that it’s an absolute disaster! (laughs) I mean, it’s freeing, but it’s also scary, because I don’t have any script or any agenda at all, no idea. I suppose by now I kind of trust myself to work it out. I know what the ending is and then you’ve got to work backwards, with the songs and the lyrics that are just so great and pieces come into place with a great team and a great editor because this film was really built around my job as a director, getting to talk to people and getting them to trust me to open up to tell me what was really going on. One by one by one, these hundred people from all over the world actually were in so much pain and had to talk to somebody. Secretly, I think they were waiting for someone to ask because nobody seemed to care. They were all lonely and apart suffering on their own. Once I started speaking to them, much as they hated the fact that they kind of had someone asking questions, they needed to talk and get it out. A 10 minute conversation would become half an hour and just grow. Five hours later we’re still talking and then they’d say there’s more, can I tell you more tomorrow and you should talk to her and her and her. Nick her early manager was one of the first people to talk to me, and then he’d recommend I talk to some of her friends which took months for them to open up. And on the other end of the spectrum, you had her producer Salaam, this big shot at Sony who didn’t have to talk to me but eventually he did because he was so important to her.
DV: Both Senna and Amy are both these kinds of characters that just burn a little too brightly, for you as a storyteller is there a certain attraction to these kinds of people?
AK: To be honest it really was just coincidence more than anything else. At the beginning of production on both films, I really just didn’t know enough about either of them and then I got to really like them which is always good because you hate diving into a subject then discovering that you just don’t care for them at all, and I’m lucky that it didn’t take me 5 years to figure that out as I expose these unique people to some brand new audiences.
DV: How it is for listening to the music now after all this?
AK: Have you tried listening to them since seeing the film? Totally different. You almost can’t listen to some of them. They turn up in a random place and people are dancing to Rehab and you’re asking, “Can you hear that? Do you not know what this song’s about?” It changed everything. The songs are a lot deeper for me now. I think there’s so much going on in her lyrics that we just didn’t pay attention.
The other thing is that she’s kind of old school, right? She’s into jazz, she was into all of this old music, she’s very well read, she knew the history of music and that was a motif that really played into her story. It used to be I bought a record, an vinyl LP, just to read the lyrics. I knew what they were saying, and then I knew where it was recorded, and I knew who was playing on it and I knew their references. Then we went to CDs, and I thought, oh, I’m having trouble, my eyesight’s not very good. Now, you download a song, you know nothing.
I like the idea of kind of going back to the old fashioned way of let’s read the lyrics, let’s understand what this person is singing about because she had something to say. It was just such an obvious thing to put the lyrics in and suddenly there’s a whole other meaning, it’s all there. She was telling us everything about her relationship with men, her family, her parents, herself. “Someone be stronger than me”, “Love is a Losing game”, “Rehab”, it’s all about something and then there’s another layer. Another thing I never thought about is she was like a method singer – every single performance is different, depending on her mood at that moment. Jazz musicians change what they’re going to play day to day because they’re in a different mood, but pop singer’s aren’t allowed. The challenge for her was “sing the bloody song, we want to dance to it!” In fact, don’t even sing, just we’ll press play, just dance and move. She wouldn’t do that. She got caught up into becoming something she wasn’t comfortable being. She wanted to experiment and she wasn’t allowed to change and experiment. The number of music execs that I’ve spoken to said she really annoyed them because she wouldn’t sing the song the same way. She wouldn’t sing the record.
DV: It would have been interesting to see how she would have continued on musically had she lived?
AK: I think she’d have done a hip hop album, a jazz album. You know what? I’ve thought about it quite a lot, and it’s good to chuck out an album that’s a commercial failure. You need a failure at some point in your life to free you up. If you have a long career, you’re going to have something that everyone thinks “that’s crap”, and you go, good, now I have freedom to do something else. She was a brilliant writer, and there’s a lot of great musicians who just write. The real money’s in publishing anyway. You don’t have to go through all of the bullshit of performing and all of that crap about how you look. She could have just been quietly writing for other people, that would have been a good way to be creative and not have to worry. There was talk, there were people, she tried to set up a publishing company right at the end and I think that might have been her way to be creative.
DV: At the end of the day, what shocked you the most about her story?
AK: Gosh, I’ve heard a lot of bad stuff, and unfortunately it all adds up, it’s just one thing after another after another where you just think, what were they thinking? Could they not see what was happening to her? I can’t single out one thing, but I’ve talked to so many people and Rock and roll is just cold and they’ve all heard the stories before in the industry and the industry truly feels like it just doesn’t care.
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