From die-hard devotees to those who only knew her as a late night punchline, Asif Kapadia’s deeply moving documentary on the musical genius and tragically short life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse is a guaranteed must-see. Her voice is astonishing to behold, while her lyrics provide a poignant and nakedly honest look at her inner evolution and the struggles that kept her from evolving further. Though the film has garnered much-publicized controversy, with Winehouse’s father especially vocal about his displeasure over how he comes off in it, Kapadia refuses to take sides, allowing the footage to speak for itself. As he did in 2010’s equally riveting documentary, “Senna,” about the celebrated career of a Brazilian Formula One racing driver who also died at a young age, Kapadia assembles a remarkable array of footage that enables us to view his subject from as many angles and perspectives as possible. His work is immersive without ever becoming exploitative.
Kapadia and his close collaborator, producer James Gay-Rees, spoke with RogerEbert.com about their audacious approach to documentary filmmaking, their views on the controversy “Amy” had received and the message they hope the film will convey.
What inspired you to tell the stories of Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse primarily through archival footage?
ASIF KAPADIA: On “Senna,” it got to the point where there was so much footage that our first editor had the wild suggestion that we only use the archive. One of our executive producers, Kevin Macdonald, who has made many great documentaries like “Touching the Void,” said, “That can’t be done. People have tried to make films purely out of archival footage without talking heads and it can’t be done.” So we figured that we should try doing it anyway.
JAMES GAY-REES: It was fun having so much footage at our disposal. You have so many camera angles to work with.
AK: I come from a drama background, and in the dramas that I’ve done, there’s hardly any dialogue, so I’m really not a fan of talking heads. I worked in TV for a short time and couldn’t stand the fact that we’d always be filming someone talking, just giving information. We were working on “Senna” for a long time before we were fully financed, so we didn’t actually have an editor for a while. I didn’t know much about Formula One racing cars, so I was doing research and there was enough footage on YouTube to make me realize that our story had a great beginning, an amazing middle and [a strong] ending. The videos online were like the best dailies I’ve ever come across and I wondered why no one had ever thought of just putting that footage onscreen. The honest truth is that it was quite a battle getting people to buy into the fact that you can make a documentary without talking heads. It took a long time for people to get onboard because they just assumed you have to show the faces of the people you’re interviewing. The thing was, while we could show everyone else, we couldn’t show Ayrton, and it’s his film. He did give a lot of great interviews, though we didn’t know that they all existed when we started the project. Our instinct was that we had to stay strong and keep searching. If you keep looking, you’ll find the footage. That became our policy, and we have a great team of researchers. Traditionally, if you have a gap in your film, you just interview someone, they plug that hole, and you move on.
JG: The approach we’ve taken makes you more rigorous because you can’t take a shortcut in the narrative through the use of something like a talking head. These movies take a long time to make because you can’t create an artificial bridge. You’ve got to find the footage to illustrate your point, and we’re pretty fascist about it.
AK: It’s difficult to do, but in the end, it’s much more cinematic. We want to make movies for the big screen. We want people to go to the theater and feel like they’re watching a movie. I can’t think of many films about the life of a musician where you watch them pick up a guitar, sing about their life and then actually go off and live it. We’re experimenting throughout “Senna” and “Amy.”
JG: In both cases, the subjects aren’t here to provide their own point-of-view. Instead, there’s a bunch of people talking about someone who isn’t there. For us, it’s just about the luxury of having enough material to keep it in the moment. In the end, it’s harder for people to question what you’ve done, because you’re literally showing what was going on. We’re not giving our opinion, and that makes a big difference.
The controversy regarding “Amy” fails to acknowledge the fact that the film empowers its audience to arrive at their own conclusions by providing a wealth of viewpoints while making clear precisely who is voicing those views.
AK: It’s really interesting hearing you say that since no one has really mentioned it. Classically, on a movie, you want as few central characters as possible. With “Senna,” there are a few key voices that you follow along with that of Senna himself. The difference here is that Amy stopped talking after she made Back to Black. We have a lot of her at the beginning in which she’s still quite naive and mouthy and saying whatever she wants. Then this amazing album comes out, and Amy stops giving interviews. What was important with “Amy” was that no one was really there all the way through [her life]. There were very few people who were always around. People are usually there for a certain chapter and then someone else comes along. So the idea with “Amy” was to have as many voices as possible. You’re not just hearing one person’s opinions. You’ve got Amy’s friends, you’ve got Mos Def, you’ve got Tony Bennett—all these people add up to give you an overview, so it’s a slightly different technique to “Senna,” which minimized the narrative to about three or four key voices.
JG: Because we went in with a complete blank canvas, with absolutely no agenda, our investigative process was to talk to as many people as possible, and to be as completely informed as three years would allow for us to be. Then we cross-referenced all the information to work out what the through lines were because Amy was such a contradictory, complicated person. Everyone had different impressions of her that you couldn’t necessarily reconcile. Someone would say, “She was the most charming, caring, maternal person you could ever hope to meet,” and someone else would say, “She was a hardass, a badass and in-your-face.” Which was she? She was all of them, so it was basically our job to corral all those different impressions and try and get to the center of what was really happening. Therefore, in terms of representation, that’s why we think it has a lot of balance. We’ve given everyone a voice and we haven’t inserted our own voice into it. We’ve put the full spectrum out there and let people take from it what they want.
AK: It’s about taking us out of the picture. It’s really easy to shoot interviews, but as a director, they’re distracting to watch, particularly if there’s a bookshelf or a plant in the background. We wanted to take that all away. Our map for Amy’s life was found in her lyrics. We’ve all heard them before, but most of us haven’t paid attention [to their meaning]. We parsed each song for their references, trying to determine who she was singing about when she mentioned a guy, for example, and once we found out his identity, we contacted him. It was a bit of a detective process. She left a lot of clues, you just have to unravel each lyric and understand how they connect to her life. I used to buy records, and if I heard a song on them that I liked, I’d read the lyrics [in the disc jacket]. I could find out who recorded the song, what their cultural references were, and everything else that I’d want to know about the song. When records were replaced by CDs, I was struggling to read the lyrics because I have bad eyesight. With digital downloads, there is no information whatsoever. I like that old-fashioned idea of reading the lyrics since they enable you to understand the song in a different way.
JG: Especially with Amy, because she wrote autobiographically. It was her cathartic process whereby she was making sense of the world and almost self-medicating through music. That was her survival. It was her life raft, as the movie shows. There were issues to be resolved from a fairly early age, and she used her music to make sense of them. As life has a habit of doing, it turned in on itself when she wrote the song “Rehab,” with its own f—king mad narrative about her relationship with her father and her own issues. That is the song that changed the game for her forever, and once that song became a massive hit, this life raft became something that could potentially devour her. The machine took over, and she couldn’t step off the machine. It’s fairly romantic for us to suggest that she didn’t want all the trappings of fame, but from having spoken to so many people, I genuinely think that she wasn’t in it for that—not the money nor the awards. That’s why she was so flippant with money and didn’t want the attention. She hadn’t banked on it going that big. I don’t think many people can handle that sort of fame when it comes along.
I loved how you made the lyrics visible onscreen and placed them in various parts of the frame, sort of like the subtitles in “Slumdog Millionaire.”
AK: As a matter of fact, the same guy that did the title design for “Slumdog Millionaire” did our’s as well. I’ve been working with him for years. He was the guy who had the idea to put the titles in different parts of the frame. His name is Matt Curtis and he’s a pain because he’s so popular. He does fifty films at a time. It was his idea to not just stick all the lyrics at the bottom of the frame and be more creative with them. They need to become a part of the space. Our editor Chris King also does a great job of utilizing the text. My collaboration with Chris is an extremely close one. There were times when I was away and he would just be getting on with it. I’m doing the interviews and he’s cutting the film. James is doing a bit of both.
JG: I deal with all the bad guys [laughs]
AK: Generally, I’m dealing with all of the nice people. I get the girls and the friends, and all the darker characters call him up. [laughs] Having both come from a fiction background, we know what it’s like to work with 300 to 400 crew members. Here, you essentially have ten people in the office. It was us and a little group of friends who made “Senna” and “Amy.” It doesn’t feel like work, everyone knows what they’re doing. There’s no script, there are no development meetings, and no actors, which is the main benefit. [laughs] It was a really good experience. We were left alone and we delivered what we said we would deliver.
What I hope this film does is bring a greater awareness to the devastating effects that relentless bullying from the media can have on its targets.
AK: Amy went from analog to digital. She was a person who was interested in old music and records and knew about the history of jazz and hip-hop. By the end, she was the girl [refusing to sing onstage] in Serbia. That concert is famous because everyone saw it on YouTube or Facebook or shared it or somehow came across a link. It was the thing that everyone shared, and she was one of the first people to have the experience of being essentially destroyed by the media. In England, the paparazzi war was at its peak. There were these new digital newspapers and the phone hacking was going on at the same time, which we know about now because we’ve seen court cases about it.
JG: What’s interesting about the concert in Serbia is that it wouldn’t have had the impact that it did if it hadn’t been for the tabloids already creating this monster. Since then, the tabloid culture in the U.K. has gotten out of control. I’m not saying this film is going to change it, but we’ve already had quite a few journalists say that maybe they need to reassess their approach.
AK: It was never said at the time that she [had bipolar disorder]. She had a mental illness and no one talked about it. That’s the problem. She had suffered from this disorder from a very early age. Suddenly her behavior stops being funny, and people will see it in a different way. The dream I have is that the film will help change how we treat people. It will make us rethink how we treated her, and the next time this happens, hopefully we won’t act the same way we did. Journalists are still doing the same thing that they were doing to Amy. The people who wrote about her are the same people who were interviewing me at Cannes when the film came out. You still see people mocking Amy with Halloween costumes. People laughed at her because they never saw that young girl. They never met that funny, bright-eyed, intelligent woman who was happy simply being with her mates.