Amy Winehouse tried talking but nobody listened

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


RPL Film Theatre
Sept. 10-12

When the news of Amy Winehouse’s death broke one Saturday morning in 2011, it was hardly a surprise to anyone who’d followed her life. The British singer/songwriter had become better known for her excesses than her gargantuan talent.

Her decline took place in plain sight. The media chose to mock her. Her immediate circle exploited her.

But Winehouse left plenty of visual testimony of every stage of her life. Enter filmmaker Asif Kapadia, who made the compelling documentary Senna in 2010. In Amy, Kapadia tries to explain Winehouse’s journey using her own voice and lyrics. As the end result shows, Winehouse was brutally honest throughout both her rise and fall — but few truly listened, especially during the latter stage.

With the benefit of hindsight, going through her landmark album Back To Black is challenging, and the song “Rehab” becomes unbearably poignant.

The documentary also underlines the heartlessness of the media, showcasing the horrible jokes made at Amy’s expense by the likes of Jay Leno and Graham Norton.

I met Kapadia in Toronto this past summer. A conversationalist by nature, he’s not particularly troubled by the complaints Winehouse’s dad has made about the way he’s portrayed — probably because he’s got the footage to back him up.

Was it hard to get Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil (Amy’s ex-husband) involved, considering that most people see them as at least partially responsible for Amy’s death?

Those particular people were not particularly difficult to talk to. Right at the beginning we decided we wanted the publisher and the estate to be involved. Part of the conversation was that they would leave us alone but be available to speak.

We all knew how this was going to turn out. This was obviously going to be a heavy film and we were going to ask all the hard questions. Everybody understood.

At what moment did Amy’s dad pull his support from the film?

Quite recently, after the film was completed.

Who was the most reluctant interview?

The first person to talk to me was Amy’s first manager, Nick Shymansky. He said, “You need to talk to Julia and Lauren (Amy’s childhood friends). I’ll put in a good word for you, but they’re really angry and bitter about what happened.” It took nearly six months to get them to open up. At the other end of the spectrum was Salaam Remi, a big-time producer — The Fugees, Lauryn Hill — who didn’t need to take part in a small documentary. I knew how important he was in her life, so I chased him all over the world. Eventually he did [talk to me], but he doesn’t speak to anyone.

How hard was it to find the narrative?

From early on, the starting point for the film was going to be her songs — because once you start looking at the lyrics, you realize it’s a map. From then on, the task was unraveling what each song was about. The whole film was like detective work, trying to understand who she was talking about, what she was referring to, then talking to the people and cross-referencing back to the songs.

It wasn’t just the lyrics, it was also her performances.

She was a method singer. Every single performance was different depending on her mood at the moment. Jazz musicians change what they play day-to-day, while pop stars aren’t allowed to. The challenge for her was to sing the bloody song we wanted to dance to, and she wouldn’t do that.

Were there any questions you couldn’t find answers for?

What was the root cause of everything? Everyone has a theory. Amy was so complicated — besides the external factors, there was Amy’s own part in her story. Why did she make the decisions that she made? Did she feel she needed to suffer? Everyone agrees she was the cleverest person they ever met. Was there any way out?

Did you have any problems deciding who was telling you the truth? And, have you changed your mind since finishing the film?

I had a quantity of people telling me the same thing. I interviewed over 100 individuals. How many have come out and said the film is not honest?

One guy.

Right. And then you have the visuals. It’s not just my opinion; I’m looking at the footage, again and again.

[Mitch Winehouse’s] main gripe with the film is not the film itself, but the fact we don’t deal with her last two years. Well, she didn’t write anything then; there was no creativity going on.

What was your own relationship to Amy Winehouse’s music before you started the project?

I knew of her, but never saw her live, never met her, much like [Ayrton] Senna. Making a movie about her was like trying to make a film about somebody I could have gone to school with. Her late period happened half a mile from my front door, all those paparazzi outside her door attacking her, and nobody was doing anything. Once I started doing the research, the more I found out, the more I liked her and realized it was important to make the film now: It’s about what we do to people who are weak or mentally unstable, and how everyone took part in making her worse.

To what degree do you believe the media is responsible for what became of Amy?

There’s a point in the movie in which you have to think about your own part. It was easy when you didn’t know who she was and you thought she was an idiot. After seeing the early footage, you can’t help but think, “She was kind of sweet. I kind of like her now.”