When Universal Music approached documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia about making a movie about Amy Winehouse, the singer had been dead for only a year.
“My first instinct was that it was actually too early, but I thought there was a story there because something didn’t quite make sense about what happened,” Kapadia told BUST on the phone. “The fact that this happened in London, where I live, in North London, where I live, it didn’t make sense that someone in this day and age could live that life and die that way. It’s one thing to be happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but to be happening now, in front of our eyes, it didn’t make sense why nobody was stopping it. It didn’t make sense why nobody was protecting her.”
It’s this sense of compassion that makes Amy - out on DVD today - a success. The film broke records to become the highest-grossing British documentary of all time and has become a critical and box office success in the US as well. Though Kapadia said that he signed on to make the film “warts and all,” Amy is an intimate, heartbreaking portrait of a “a very ordinary, down-to-earth North London Jewish girl,” as Kapadia describes her.
The filmmaking process - conducting countless interviews with people who knew Amy, combing through performance videos and archival footage, and editing it all together - took just under three years, much of it spent convincing people close to Amy to speak about her on the record.
“When I contacted people no one wanted to talk to me because they all felt it was too soon, and they didn’t know who I was and they thought, ‘You’re just another person trying to take advantage of her,’” Kapadia says. With the interviews, “there was a process of learning that made me think this is actually really important to get out, because if 20 years pass and people forget, we say, ‘Oh, that was then, we’re in a different place now, we don’t treat people like that anymore.’ The more I learned, the more I thought this was a really important story about us now.”
A film about “us now” - what does that mean? Kapadia’s answer is multifaceted: “I wanted to make a film about London. What’s happened is that film about London, I’ve realized that people in New York get it, people in LA get it. And it’s very much a film about the media, I suppose, and about fame and about family and about life and love and relationships and parenting, all of these things which are very everyday things.
“The more I found out about Amy, the more I felt she was a very down-to-earth, ordinary person like the friends I grew up with. She just happened to have this talent. The media in London, the newspapers, the magazines, the radio stations, the TV, everyone turned on her, and the people who turned on her are still out there, nothing’s changed. But I now meet the people who made fun of her when she was essentially having a public nervous breakdown and suffering from mental illness and suffering from bulimia and suffering from depression, the people who made fun of her now are the ones talking to me and they feel bad, they never thought of her as being a human being.
“That’s what I meant as a film about us. The complicity, for me, of Londoners and of people in the media for what happened to her.”
Amy, then is a sort of penance - the closest media can come to a true portrayal of Amy Winehouse, released more than four years after she died of alcohol poisoning in her Camden home, just 27 years old. The film is so powerful that people are changing their minds about Amy Winehouse: “People realize they’d judged her, they’d gone,’ Oh, I really like her songs but she’s a bit of an idiot for being such a mess,’ and they realize, ‘Oh my god, she’s so much different from that perception we had,” Kapadia says.
Amy is too late to help Amy, but Kapadia hopes that maybe it can help “the next time” - the next time a famous woman goes through a public breakdown, hounded by the media, her phones tapped by tabloids and her movements tracked by the paparazzi, her pain sold to TMZ for clicks.
“I’m a crazy eternal optimist and I hoped that if I made a film and we got it right, I hoped that it would help,” Kapadia says. “Has it gotten any better? Sadly, I don’t know if it has. I think it still goes on. But even if our film changes one person, maybe it will help somebody. If the next time this happens to somebody, if we can see it happening, rather than making fun of them maybe someone will reach out and stop it and help.”
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