Chasing Amy... the new documentary on Amy Winehouse
She was the waif-like star with the huge voice whose demons got her in the end. The director of a new Amy Winehouse film tells Ed Power why he had to tell her story
Published 25/06/2015 | 02:30
There's a chilling scene early in the new Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, in which the singer, still fresh-faced and undiscovered, contemplates her future. "I don't think I'm going to be at all famous," she tells an interviewer. "I don't think I could handle it. I would probably go mad."
Her words turned out to be horribly prophetic. On July 23 2011, the 27-year-old was discovered dead at her London home. She had died alone, slipping quietly away in the early hours of the morning.
After half a decade of prodigious drug and alcohol consumption - including a ruinous flirtation with crack cocaine - her body had simply given up (three empty vodka bottles were at her bedside). Hard partying, mouthy, promiscuous, Winehouse had lived like a rock star. She died like one too.
Four years on, our feelings about Winehouse remain complex. Her music, gloriously vintage to begin with, seems to have aged not at all. With the toxic glare of her tabloid infamy finally dimming, we can agree she was one of the outstanding voices of her generation - her gorgeous, poison-tipped croon placing her in the exalted company of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.
And yet, those awful final months have cast a retrospective pall. Who today can listen to her hit Rehab - inspired by a friend's real-life intervention as Winehouse's boozing reach crisis point - without a shudder?
The song that made her famous was also a prophetic chronicling of her downfall and, if Winehouse is an icon of popular culture, she is also arguably its victim.
This is a truth that gives Amy, a sensation at Cannes, a raw, dangerous edge.
"I did think 'it's too soon isn't it?" director Asif Kapadia tells me.
"As in, 'it feels as if it has just happened'. What you get is a raw honesty to what everyone is saying. Within that are tears and anger and pain. Hopefully the film captures some of that. Because it is so soon it is pretty fresh in the mind - nobody had got over it.
"As the film opens up and becomes more about the world and the paparazzi and the audience, it feels like this was important to make now.
"We all remember where we were [when we learned Winehouse had died]. We all remember our part in it - I felt we should put the mirror to the audience."
Kapadia, director of the acclaimed Senna, was not a fan of Winehouse's especially - he owned a copy of Back to Black, her chart-topping mega LP, but never met her or saw her in concert.
Still, he always felt an affinity. He and Winehouse had grown up in the same part of north London and he worked in Camden when she was a face on the rock scene there.
"I kind of knew her from afar," he says. "I knew her mostly as a local girl. I walked through Camden every day and there was a scene going around that time. It was all very edgy - it was where everyone wanted to be."
He initially found it difficult to get the project off the ground - many of those closest to the singer were slow to open up. So little time had passed; the sting of their loss was still vividly felt.
"Everyone was reluctant," he says. "There was a general distrust of the media. It was like 'here comes another person who doesn't want to know what really went on, who is going to make it look bad'. It took time to win their trust."
He was especially mindful that her family would see the documentary. Here, Kapadia faced a torturous balancing act. He owed it to Winehouse to truthfully tell her story - even if that meant presenting those around her in a disapproving light. Yet, he was sensitive to the feelings of those closest to the singer.
"It was very difficult," he nods."They are real people - with real emotions. It was a hard film to make. In the end we decided, either we make it or we don't make it. We needed to be honest to Amy really. To show what was going on around her, without pointing the finger at a single person."
Winehouse's relationship with husband Blake Fielder-Civil (whom she would finally divorce) provides much of the dramatic impetus in Amy, especially during her horrifically drawn-out downfall.
Kapadia has been assiduous in not painting anyone in Winehouse's orbit in black and white - and yet, if his film has a villain, it is indisputably this damaged young man who seemed to infect Winehouse with his chemical-mediated nihilism.
It was he who introduced Winehouse, already an enthusiastic lush, to hard drugs - and who, as her fame took on the aspect of a supernova, remained loyally by her side, her baleful shelter against the whirlwind of celebrity.
"She told me she'd met this guy and fallen in love, and that he was 'a right wrong'un, but a good boy'," her former manager, Nick Shymanksy, told a UK newspaper last week.
"I walked in and he was there, and that's when I first met Blake [Fielder-Civil].
"And I thought, 'something's really wrong'. I don't have any evidence of this, but I feel instinctively that she was doing something heavy, like crack or heroin. It was horrible to see her going from someone so tender and brilliant and warm, to being kind of derelict and lost."
"Blake still has issues," says Kapadia. "I interviewed him and he was tricky, awkward. He is quite open to admitting his weaknesses, his part in everything that went wrong. He is very [open] now as to how many mistakes he made, what he did to Amy, what happened in their relationship."
"I don't think I ruined her, no. I think we found each other and certain people need to realise that she did have other addictions before she met me," Civil-Fielder, said in a recent interview. "She wasn't a happy, well-adjusted young woman."
Winehouse's hustling father Mitch comes off badly too. We see him travel to a holiday resort to reconnect with his daughter, in recovery from drug addiction and desperate to maintain a low profile.
She worshipped her dad and clearly needed family support - which he provided, albeit in the presence of the ITV camera crew he invited along.
The film also asserts that it was Mitch who talked her out of going into rehab. As noted above, the incident would inspire her biggest hit even as it arguably impelled her towards an early grave.
Perhaps understandably, Mitch has lashed out at Amy, describing it as a cruel distortion of the truth. His intervention led to the film being dubbed the 'controversial Amy Winehouse documentary'.
"I'd much rather people think of it as honest," sighs Kapadia.
"I don't worry about [the media response]. I can't control it. You know what it's like - you put the movie out there and that's it. You have no say in how people will respond."
In the director's opinion, the true culprit in the Amy Winehouse story is the general public. We were the ones who rolled our eyes and chuckled upon hearing of her latest meltdown, who went to her concerts secretly hoping she would lose it on stage. Our Schadenfreude was endless.
I recall seeing her at Dublin's Ambassador in 2007 and while the performance was undeniably slick, there was something chillingly wraith-like about Winehouse. She was pale, incoherent between songs. Once or twice you suspected she was going to lose it. Horribly, part of you was willing it to happen.
"If she had made a record and it had been a failure I'm not sure it would have changed her life the way megafame did," says Kapadia.
"The whole circus hit town. She says she wasn't cut out for fame. What happened was that everyone joined in on giving her a kicking. There was a perverse enjoyment in seeing someone messed up - we like to say 'I was there, she was awful'. People would go to see her drinking, they would egg her on."
'Amy' is released in cinemas July 3
Amy Winehouse, in her own words...
"Life happens. There is no point in being upset or down about things we can't control or change."
"Most people my age spend a lot of time thinking about what they're going to do for the next five or 10 years. The time they spend thinking about their life, I just spend drinking."
"I know I'm talented, but I wasn't put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mum and look after my family. I love what I do, but it's not where it begins and ends."
"Since I was 16, I've felt a black cloud hangs over me. Since then, I have taken pills for depression."
"There's no point in saying anything but the truth. Because, at the end of the day, I don't have to answer to you, or my ex, or a man in a suit from the record company. I have to answer to myself."
"I'm not afraid of appearing vulnerable."
"I did go to rehab but did not last long... I went in and said, 'Hello' and explained that I drink because I'm in love and have f***** up."