“Her charisma, her presence, was a lot to do with her eyes”: Asif Kapadia on Amy

Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary about Amy Winehouse presents a complex picture of someone who is both more canny and more intimidated than we could ever have imagined. From our July 2015 issue.

11 April 2024

By Nick James

Amy (2015)
Sight and Sound

The scene is some ordinary flat-pack London lounge at the turn of this century. A petite but gawky teenaged girl with flappy fingers – all fidgety overspill – is eyeballing the lens of a videocam; there’s insistence and pleading in those eyes. “You’re a good-looking fella,” she tells the guy filming her, while her eyes say, “Love me, you will love me.” Big teeth flash between frosted lips as she moves right in. She can seem a little vacant, this girl, keeping up the speed chat like she’s mimicking Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, but don’t be fooled: this persistent, slightly irritating but captivating youth has a mind that’s fine-tuned for fleeting moods and images and she will become perhaps the most talented female singer and lyricist of her generation.

In his bio-documentary Amy, it’s the phenomenal talent of Winehouse that’s the first thing director Asif Kapadia sets out to establish. We see her performing right from the start: jazz in 2000 with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, jazzy songs of her own. Her astonishing voice – what Rolling Stone called her “sultry, crackly, world-weary howl” – already has power, edge, intimacy and great flexibility, and her emotions are always close to the surface so that her vocals never sound like an acquired technique. Purists might balk at a North London Jewish girl channelling Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, but absorbing and adapting African-American music is, of course, what young Brits have been doing since before the Stones and Dusty Springfield. As these performances demonstrate, Amy Winehouse always sounded most of all like herself.

But starting a film with excerpts of torch songs is a risky strategy. After all, what Winehouse is most famous for – however regrettably – is not her way with phrasing but her tortuous descent into drink and drug addiction, much of which took place under the flashgun barrage of the paparazzi. Loosely speaking, the career arc goes like this: quickly making a name for herself as a phenomenal vocalist and a songwriter, but also as a style icon who melded the Bettie Page pin-up look her generation favoured with Ronnie Spector’s beehive and makeup, Winehouse is taken on by Island Records and, in 2003, Salaam Remi produces the Frank album, which gets her noticed on the British scene and is nominated for a Mercury Prize. Around this time, she falls completely in love with London scenester Blake Fielder-Civil, and they both set out on a path of mutual self-destruction through heroin and booze.

Amy (2015)

But let’s pause that tale for a moment, because perhaps the first shock of Amy is to discover that Winehouse’s need to get wasted all the time was there long before she achieved real fame. Her appetite for life, for being in the heightened moment, seemed impossible to turn off. That’s one reason why Kapadia had first to front up her raw talent and win us over to her as a person as well as a performer.

“What was really important for me,” Kapadia tells me, “was to show this really talented young girl at her natural best, so we could see that what she was really about was being this incredible jazz singer, performing to small groups of people. She said quite early on that she never wanted to be really famous. When I started looking at all the material, I realised that her charisma, her presence, was a lot to do with her eyes, which are so amazing; all those moments when she’s looking straight into the camera. You see that sweet, vulnerable girl hungry all the time for love. And her friends at the beginning, with their tiny cameras, are doing exactly what the paparazzi were doing towards the end, saying, ‘Look this way Amy. Do this.’”

The rest of the Winehouse story may have a familiar shape, but not all your preconceptions about the girl will stand up (and your heart will be in danger of breaking). Amy has been constructed by Kapadia in a similar way to Senna, his 2010 portrait of Formula 1 racing driver Ayrton Senna, by gathering all the available footage he could lay his hands on. Kapadia says, “I used all kinds of material: people’s stills; their playing around with little video cameras; concert films; phone cameras; everything. That’s what you do. You take the imagery, just as a Scorsese does with a fiction film, and you speed bits up, slow other bits down, reframe, move in. You take a song like ‘Back to Black’, you see her learning it with the lyric sheet and then her alone in the vocal booth doing it, just her voice, then you bring in the music – bam – and it’s so powerful, and even more so if you then cut the music out again.”

The Back to Black album, and particularly the single ‘Rehab’, with its famous lyric, “They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said, ‘No, no, no…’/I ain’t got the time/ and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…” made Winehouse a huge international star. But the daddy in question, Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse, does not think Kapadia’s film is fine – unsurprising, since he does not come out of it well, although he fares better than Fielder-Civil or the paparazzi. Mitch Winehouse has said about the film that “there are specific allegations made against family and management that are unfounded and unbalanced”. You’ll have to make up your own minds about that.

Kapadia’s defence of his film is straightforward. “I’m just a simple guy,” he says. “I was asked to do this film. I didn’t make the film to get at anyone. I believe it’s a faithful portrait of this incredible girl and what happened to her. What we did is to talk to hundreds of people and build up a picture based on that. I was lucky that Amy’s first manager Nick Shymansky was out with his girlfriend and he was just walking past the Coronet one day and he said, ‘Senna – I’ve been wanting to see that film,’ and his girlfriend wasn’t too keen, but they went in and afterwards, he said to her, ‘If anyone was to make a film about Amy, it would be great if it was like this.’ And some time later, when I rang him, he told me that was the reason why he agreed to talk to me. I talked to him over several sessions in a darkened room, and it became like a chain of connections – you should talk to so-and-so, and in these sessions people would always end up in tears. With her close friends, in particular, it took me a long, long time to win their trust. At first I would say, ‘I know nothing about this girl or what happened.’ But over time I built up enough knowledge to begin to say, ‘Hang on, it wasn’t like that, was it?’ One of the things about these sessions is that not one of them was there for the whole time, so they had all sorts of opinions about the people who came before or after them.”

In the orgy of speculation that followed Winehouse’s death from alcohol poisoning in July 2011, much mileage was made out of the fact that she had joined the so-called 27 Club of musicians who died at the age of 27, a group that also includes Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Cobain, of course, is the subject of a recently released documentary tribute of his own, Cobain: Montage of Heck, which tries to get to some essential truth about his disaffection with the world in ways that are similarly reliant on glimpses of his personal life and writings. Montage of Heck is, however, the more hagiographic work, made with full family co-operation and designed not to disturb the Cobain myth of a boy too sensitive for this world. Amy takes more risks, in that the film – which, through its very method, is a critique of the way tabloid digital media harass stars such as Winehouse – makes use of the very imagery it is critiquing, something Kapadia insists is totally justified.

Amy (2015)

Amy also allows you to judge the quality of Winehouse’s lyrics for yourself, because they run across the screen every time she sings. “I wanted her words to be read and understood,” says the director, “so you could see this incredibly talented young girl – she was just 20 when she made Frank and 23 when she made Back to Black – was writing these amazing songs and they were about what was happening to her. Because when you’re just listening, you just start tapping your feet and you’re away with it. You just switch off. So I thought it was important to put the lyrics on screen, to show just what a brilliant songwriter she was. There wasn’t really any music bio-doc that was in my mind. I was trying to think of it more as a musical. The one film I saw while I was making Amy and that made sense in a similar way was the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Here is this guy living his life and every once in a while he sings.”

And that’s the Winehouse that emerges in Amy, someone much more canny and yet also much more intimidated than we could have imagined. Kapadia thinks pop success got in the way of her bohemian idea of artistry. “She was a jazz singer,” he says. “She didn’t want to play the same songs over and over. That was the strength of her as an artist coming through.” The film gives us plenty of space to reflect on what might have been and much of its tragic power derives from a profound sense of a talent spent way too soon, so we don’t just mourn for the bulimic, alcoholic junky in pain, but for the music, much of it rap-oriented, as well as jazz, that she never got to make.

For Kapadia, there’s also something essentially London about the singer. “It’s like everyone in London had a connection to Amy,” he says. “They either knew her, knew someone who knew her, or saw her play or out on the streets. And when I was looking at all the material, I kept thinking: I know these streets, I’ve walked through these parts of London.” This journalist can only agree. One evening in 2004, I was about to leave my local N16 gastropub – a well-liked but never crowded establishment – when I noticed the place was filling up mysteriously with dapper blokes in their early thirties. There must have been at least 40 of them. They milled around, as if checking out the place; then, just at the moment my family and I were heading for the door, the men formed a corridor, and towards us, moving not unlike a flamingo, came tiny Amy Winehouse, looking sassier than I had ever imagined. We stepped aside and I resisted the impulse to bow. Amy is that bow, a film full of love and anger.