Coming just five months after “Framing Britney Spears,” Curious Films’ new documentary, “Reclaiming Amy,” about late singer Amy Winehouse, takes a similar tack in examining the flesh-and-blood woman behind the paparazzi pictures.
Only two years apart in age, Spears and Winehouse dominated the mid-2000s tabloid headlines with their public unravelling although, unlike Spears, Winehouse’s story ended in tragedy, with the 27-year-old dying from alcohol poisoning in 2011.
“About 18 months ago, we’d clocked that the 10-year anniversary was on the horizon and we just sort of asked ourselves, ‘Is there anything left to tell with the Amy Winehouse story that hasn’t been covered in other films before?’” Dov Freedman, co-founder of Curious Films and an executive producer on “Reclaiming Amy,” tells Variety.
After reaching out to Winehouse’s mother Janis, Freedman and Curious Films co-founder Charlie Russell were invited to her home for “a cup of tea” where they quickly realized “there was a story to be told here that hadn’t been told before, a version of Amy that [her parents] haven’t been allowed to share, really.”
Once Freedman and Russell were confident the project had legs, they pitched it to the BBC, who commissioned it for BBC Two. “It’s a golden age for documentaries and factual storytelling at the moment,” Freedman notes. “There’s a huge appetite.” “Reclaiming Amy” airs Friday in the U.K., on the 10th anniversary of the singer’s death.
Winehouse’s life has, of course, been raked over on screen before, most notably in Asif Kapadia’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Amy,” which comes in for some criticism from Winehouse’s parents, Janis and Mitchell, in “Reclaiming Amy” (even the title of the Curious Films documentary can be read as a rebuke.)
“I think one of the things that [Janis] found most painful about the narrative about her daughter since she died is that she came from an unhappy and unloving family and that in some way led to her problems in later life,” says Freedman. “For the narrative to be around that, I mean, that was incredibly difficult for Janis, so I think that’s what we’ve tried to do with that archive [of family photographs and videos] is just paint a picture of a girl — a very normal girl — that came from a very normal family.”
With Janis and Mitchell both in their 70s, and Janis suffering from multiple sclerosis, the COVID crisis presented an acute challenge in getting the film made but, for Freedman, the bigger challenge “was gaining the trust of the people that we wanted to be in the film,” he says. “We felt it was important that it wasn’t just Janis, but really those that were closest to Amy, that had never spoken before.”
One person close to Amy who doesn’t appear in the film, however, is Blake Fielder-Civil, the singer’s ex-husband, who has been accused of introducing her to hard drugs. “[Her marriage] is not something that we dwell on for very long in the film, because I think people have heard that story,” Freedman explains. “What the film is trying to do is kind of redefine who Amy was and she’s not defined by that relationship with Blake and that 12 months where, you know, there was a well-documented struggle with drugs.”
Coincidentally, at the same time as making “Reclaiming Amy,” Curious Films was also wrapping up “Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death,” a Channel 4 documentary that aired in March about the British “Love Island” presenter who died by suicide in 2020 while awaiting trial for assault. “The fact that we have these two films in production at the same time is not a deliberate creative strategy around the business — far from it,” Freedman says.
“What I would say is we like looking at stories that people think they know, but actually don’t know the real side of things. That’s enticing for any documentary filmmaker and we like to bring that documentary quality to popular subjects.”
Equally, Freedman says “Framing Britney Spears” wasn’t a direct influence on “Reclaiming Amy” — Curious Films were already a year into the Winehouse project by the time “Framing Britney Spears” came out in February — but the two films are similar in their examination of each singer’s agency in her own life and the sexism inherent in their treatment by the media. “I think we were like, ‘Well, why are male rock stars who go out in a blaze of glory — why is that almost celebrated but with female stars they’re often seen as this tragic figure in some way?’” says Freedman.
“So I think there was definitely an imbalance there that’s maybe been rectified in some way in re-evaluating these stories, whether it’s Britney, Amy or Caroline.”