Asif Kapadia didn’t know much about Amy Winehouse before he made “Amy,” the acclaimed new documentary about the late musician’s life. In a way that’s a good thing: his film recreates what it’s like to discover her for the first time. What you see is not the drug-addicted megastar who became a fixture of tabloids and late night one-liners. You see a funny, charismatic woman destroyed by a level of fame she never thought she could handle. And, just as in Kapadia's doc "Senna," you see it not through a traditional, expository Wikipedia movie but through an immersion in archival footage, from home movies to, in the film’s harrowing second half, horrifying paparazzi shots. We spoke to Kapadia as well as Nick Shymansky, Winehouse’s manager and close friend, about this unusual approach to a music doc.
As someone who didn’t, like you, Asif, follow her career closely at the time, I was pretty blown away to see the footage of her younger and full of life.
Asif Kapadia: That’s how I felt. I find myself always interested in making films about subjects I don’t know much about. Hopefully my initial feeling will be the audiences’ initial feeling. I want to appeal to people who have no interest in the subject, because the fans will probably go anyway. You want to appeal to people who aren’t the fans. With Amy, the first thing that stood out in Nick’s footage was how funny she was, and just comfortable, happy. I showed a really early cut to some friends, and they all cried in the beginning. They didn’t particularly cry at the ending, because they knew how it ended. Afterwards I asked why they were crying. They said, “Because we’d never seen her happy before.”
All everyone remembers was her in the latter stages, and in the U.S. that’s all you saw. She was not the same person after she became famous. We wanted to show her doing really simple, mundane, ordinary things, so you realize she was this ordinary, down-to-earth, down-the-road girl and not put her on a pedestal and turn her into a megastar. Once that happens people become less human and easier to make fun of, easier to attack. I found her really engaging. When she sings a cappella, the rawness of it, I just fell in love with her. I wished I had met her.
Was it difficult to get people like Nick involved?
AK: I spoke to Nick. He was the first person to trust me, to open up and be willing to go on record. Everyone was nervous to speak to me — not willing, too pained, it was too soon. There were a lot of issues why they didn’t want to open up. They also didn’t know who I was. I could just be another paparazzi photographer or a journalist who’s going to change what they’re trying to say into something else. A lot of people felt they needed to shut down in order to protect Amy, because she had been exploited so much throughout her life.
Nick, how did he convince you?
Nick Shymansky: I was surprised by how unpushy Asif was. Everyone who had tried to talk to me had been very pushy. I wasn’t sure about it at first. I’d seen “Senna,” so I had a respect. I wanted to meet up and express my concerns. I found that Asif wasn’t looking for a hook, he wasn’t trying to get something done quickly. I was given time to come round. By the time I got into a recording booth I felt I had a relationship with Asif — that this was the most comfortable I was ever going to feel getting into a booth and talking about Amy. He had a very sensitive way of handling people who had been around something as sad as what happened to her.
There’s an unusual amount of intimacy here, particularly because of the footage shot by people like Nick.
AK: What’s interesting about Nick and her friend Lauren’s material is it’s really intimate. It’s also something to do with the cameras they’re using. They’re not cameraphones. They’re home video cameras, so you have to hold them up to your eye. If you hold it up to your eye and you’re talking to Amy, she’s looking straight at us, into the lens. That’s another level of intimacy. She’s talking to the audience. We are the friend, we are Nick, we are Lauren, we are the husband, we are the paparazzi. We become all these people. The audience changes their point of view with Amy throughout the film.