Finding ‘Amy’: Director Asif Kapadia’s Journey Into Amy Winehouse’s Tragic Story

Asif Kapadia Amy Winehouse Documentary
Damon Casarez for Variety

When singer Amy Winehouse died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning at age 27, most people knew her as an inglorious train wreck, having witnessed her steady descent into self-destruction as if in real time.

There was the Kurt & Courtney-like relationship with her lover/enabler Blake Fielder-Civil; those harrowing tabloid clips of her smoking crack in her ramshackle Camden flat; the onstage meltdown in Belgrade when she was too wasted to perform; the steady stream of jokes and pointed commentaries in the media that painted her as a pathetic mess.

With this in mind, David Joseph, chairman and CEO of Universal Music U.K., wanted to set the record straight, or at least present a more rounded portrait of the artist as a young woman. Two and a half years ago, he approached James Gay-Rees, who had produced director Asif Kapadia’s acclaimed documentary “Senna,” about Brazilian Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna, to film a true account of her short life.

“I don’t want this to sound too karmic or romantic, but I just felt compelled that we should really tell the proper story of Amy,” Joseph says. “Some things I was seeing on television and in the press weren’t really correct, so we met with Asif, and he had a lot of interest.”

Like “Senna” — another story of a raw and reckless talent who died young — the resulting documentary, “Amy,” which caused a sensation at Cannes and is being released by A24 on July 3, dispenses with talking heads, and is pieced together completely from found footage, resulting in a story that is startlingly intimate and ultimately heartbreaking.

It’s also an eye-opening revelation of Winehouse as not just a teetering torch singer defined by her Ronnie Spector beehive and Cleopatra makeup, but as a once-in-a-generation talent — Billie Holiday with a poet’s facility for wordplay and a Brill Building sense of structure. As “Amy” amply illustrates, Winehouse wrote and composed her own songs, with assistance from key collaborators like Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. Like all great lyricists, she used personal struggle for artistic gain.

“The big thing was to really get people to listen to what she’s singing about; not just go with the music,” the London-based Kapadia tells Variety during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “People didn’t really talk about her writing. There’s something in every sentence, in every turn of phrase,” adds the director, who superimposes lyrics onscreen to drive the point home.

While Kapadia’s approach to documentary filmmaking is not necessarily groundbreaking, he and his team’s ability to mine archival footage — from family and friends, Winehouse’s label, the BBC and concert organizers — to tell a compellingly visual story filled with nuance has been embraced by critics.

In Kapadia’s strongly visual methodology, voices are heard off-camera while film and stills — mostly of Winehouse — primarily tell the story. The device also helped him gain the trust of those close to the singer during her lifetime.

“The people I met were very ordinary, simple people who had never given an interview in their life,” he explains. “They weren’t comfortable in front of the camera. There was a lot of nervousness, a lot of anger, a lot of pain. So it became one of the worst things in the world to stick a camera in their face.

“Then it became apparent quickly that Amy is very watchable. Just put her on the screen; I don’t care what anyone else looks like, I just want to see her and her eyes and her face and her body. And it’s constantly shifting and changing. So you just listen and look at her, and you get it. And that naturally for me becomes more cinematic.”

The key was finding material, especially live performances, that have rarely, if ever, been shown to the general public.

The idea, says Kapadia, was to make it feel like audiences had to be there. “The famous shows where there were thousands of people were never the good shows,” he says. “That’s the really sad thing — that by the time she became well-known, it was really on the downward spiral.”

That spiral is more than balanced by home movies and footage on the road taken by friends early in the film of Winehouse from her mid-teens to early 20s, clear-eyed and witty, innocently seductive in her charms, and possessed of a God-given talent (getting her first manager, Nick Shymansky, to cooperate was a breakthrough for the filmmaker). A rehearsal in the office of an Island Records executive when she was 18 — just Winehouse accompanying herself on acoustic guitar — suggests an artistry fully formed out of the gate. One colleague in the documentary describes her as having the voice of “a 65-year-old jazz singer.”

“She had such a bad reputation,” Kapadia says. “Then you meet the young girl, and it’s about ‘how did nobody know who she really was?’ So the simple thing was to show people how funny she was, how enjoyable, how happy she was. I screened a very early cut of the film to a few friends, and all of the women in the room started crying right at the beginning. And I asked them afterward, ‘Why were you crying?’ And they said, ‘I’d never seen her happy before.’ ”

Because Winehouse made only two studio albums during her brief but meteoric career, Kapadia views his film as having two acts. There’s a gap in footage between her jazz-flavored debut “Frank,” and her girl group-inspired, R&B-heavy “Back to Black,” as she became more caught up in substance abuse and a co-dependent relationship with Fielder-Civil. But once she got into a groove, the muse just flowed through her.

Ronson talks about how Winehouse came up with the lyrics and melody of the title tune of “Back to Black,” which we see her sing in the studio, in “two or three hours.” But those moments of lucidity would become less frequent as she became more of a public figure, and the rigors of touring and public appearances — often the result of questionable management — took their toll. The film depicts Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, as putting her career before her health, and glomming onto her fame for personal gain. (He has denounced the film, alleging that it misrepresents his role in her career.)

Kapadia relies increasingly on paparazzi footage toward the end of the movie. “My job as a director is to use whatever tools to tell the story in the best way,” he says. “If I didn’t, you’d miss a huge chunk of her life.” The director says the footage puts the paparazzi, often shown snapping away like a school of piranhas in a feeding frenzy, up to a real-world mirror. “I thought it was important to put that in there to show that flashbulbs are violent,” he adds.

A24 is treating “Amy,” budgeted at between $2.3 million and $3.1 million, like “an event film” with a potential 500-screen run, and no plan at present for a VOD rollout.

“Very few docs hit those kinds of thresholds,” says A24’s Heath Shapiro, “so it’s a little evolutionary.”

A24 says it is planning an Oscar push for the film, but couldn’t provide details. It is adamant, though, that “Amy” should be experienced in the theater.

“It brings up so many different themes that it fits into the fiber of the culture,” Shapiro says. “It moved everyone to tears at the screenings we did.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise, given the wealth of quality, unreleased music in the movie, including appearances at jazz festivals in London and Rotterdam, is the fact that there are no plans for a soundtrack. Universal’s Joseph feels all of the quality material in the label’s vaults was used on the label’s 2011 posthumous release “Lioness: Hidden Treasures” (a duet from which, “Body and Soul,” with Tony Bennett is seen being recorded in the film) and actually insisted that a lot of her post “Back to Black” recordings be destroyed, which might come as a shock to completists.

“They weren’t Amy at her best,” Joseph maintains, “so whomever becomes my successor, or my successor’s successor, there’s no temptation to release stuff that’s not of the right quality.”

Kapadia also explains that the label, in its initial foray into the movie business, did not want to seem like it was capitalizing on a movie as if it were a promotional tool. “At the beginning, we were very wary of this idea of just making a film to sell an album,” he says. “So they’ve been quite sensitive to that. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I’m hoping, eventually … ”