Shortly after Asif Kapadia stepped onstage at the BAFTAs last weekend to collect his Best Documentary award for Amy, Amy Winehouse’s father Mitch sent out a tweet making his feelings clear. “This is a one dimensional, miserable and misleading portrait of Amy,” he wrote. “Asif knows.”
It wasn’t his first such missive since before the movie premiered at Cannes last May, kicking off an awards-season run that included a Best Documentary Feature nomination for Sunday’s Oscars and last week’s Grammy win for Best Music Film. But it shouldn’t have happened like this.
After all, it was David Joseph, the chairman and CEO of Winehouse’s record label Universal Music, who approached Kapadia, and his producer James Gay-Rees, with a pitch that they turn Amy Winehouse’s story into a documentary feature. He’d seen and admired their film Senna, about a similarly beloved icon taken before their time. With Amy’s label behind the project, the Winehouse family had initially given it their blessing. It was only after Mitch Winehouse screened an early cut of the film that his reaction turned.
“We were told, ‘You can make the story warts and all,’” Kapadia says now. “That kind of triggered something for us. We had this meeting fairly early on with all the stakeholders and we said, ‘We know the ending—we can’t dodge what happened—so you’re going to have to leave us room to talk to everyone. It became this investigation.”
It’s safe to assume, then, that Mitch Winehouse didn’t agree with the conclusions drawn by that investigation. Amongst the documentary’s more shocking moments is a decision credited to Mitch not to allow his daughter to attend a rehab clinic while she had commitments to tour and record new music.
“But it was not about blaming a single person,” insists Kapadia. “It’s about her and her choices. She changed management at a certain point, and I don’t know if you pick who you fall in love with, but for whatever reason—the way she was made up, perhaps—she made certain choices and then a lot of people around her kept making decisions which were just not good for her. You look at her [in some of the footage] and you think, why are you on stage in that state? Why did nobody in the chain say ‘not today?’”
“Mitch doesn’t even have much of an issue with what’s in the film,” says Gay-Rees. “As much as it can be, it’s fair, and it represents what was going on. He just wishes there were things in the film that aren’t in the film. The special moments they had together, he says.”
Kapadia and Gay-Rees had worked hard to gain the trust of Amy’s family and circle of friends. “And it became a catch-22,” says the producer, “whereby her really close friends would say, ‘You’ve got to tell the truth, and we need you to help us,’ and then, ‘I don’t want to be involved.’”
But the portrait of Winehouse in Amy does, in the end, come from those closest to her. “It’s mentally exhausting but it was about saying, ‘Let’s go somewhere safe. You can say what you want, and if you want to say something off the record, you can,’” says Kapadia. “Her circles of friends didn’t trust one another and they all blamed each other, so there’s all this guilt and anger, and all this pain.
“We started a year after she died and it felt too soon, but you realized that nobody had dealt with it yet and moved on. It was so raw. The voices, when you hear them in the film, are on the verge of tears because it’s the first time they’ve talked about her to anybody outside of their own family. Everybody cried. Everybody broke down.”
Whether Amy has similarly inspired Oscar voters—who have in recent years favored music docs like 20 Feet from Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man—remains to be seen. But Kapadia is happy, at least, with how his film has reshaped the narrative of Amy Winehouse’s life, and changed how we view addiction and breakdown through the prism of celebrity gossip.
“Now, when people hear her songs, they suddenly understand that they’re so much deeper,” he says. “She was an amazing artist. She could write, she could come up with the music and she could sing. She had the whole package. But somehow she became tabloid culture, where people don’t like her on principle. If the film has done anything it’s taken her out of that sphere and put her back where she belongs, as a proper artist.”