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'Amy' Is A Portrait Of An Artist Whose Life Goes Very Wrong


AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) For you I was a flame. Love is a losing game.


Asif Kapadia's documentary about the life of the singer Amy Winehouse, called simply "Amy" begins at a 14th birthday party. Winehouse and a couple of friends start to sing the happy birthday song together.


UNIDENTIFIED GIRLS: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

NEARY: But gradually, Winehouse takes over and the others easily give way to her unmistakable talent.


WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

NEARY: Weaving together personal films, archived tape, interviews and music, Kapadia creates a portrait of an artist whose life goes very wrong and whose talent gets wasted in the glare of publicity. Asif Kapedia, the director of "Amy," joins us now from the BBC in London. Welcome to the program, Mr. Kapadia.

ASIF KAPADIA: Thank you, great to be here.

NEARY: I wanted to ask you - there's an extraordinary amount of film or videotape from what seemed to be very private moments in Amy Winehouse's life in this film. You weave them all together in a very impressionistic way. It's not like one of these sort of typical talking heads kinds of documentaries. Why this impressionistic kind of take on this?

KAPADIA: It's kind of my instinctive way of working, really. A lot of the people in "Amy" were very paranoid, very nervous, very uncomfortable with the press, very angry and upset with everything that happened around her. So really the worst thing in the world would've been turn up with a camera pointing in their face and tell me what happened. I had to be more sensitive to that. I like this impressionistic style of - I just want to see Amy. I wanted to see her eyes, I want to see her face. It's far more kind of expressive in telling you what's going on and seeing her body changing and then just hearing things and hearing sounds and hearing voices. And then she picks up a guitar, and she sings, and she just blows you away. So there's just something about being in a moment and staying in the present that I find far more interesting, for me, as a filmmaker.

NEARY: Well, something that I found really interesting 'cause I didn't know that much about Amy Winehouse's life was how steep she was in jazz. It seems like saw herself as having a kind of modest career as a jazz singer, and there's an excerpt that's very revealing that I just want to listen to, and then we can talk about it. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How big do you think you're going to be?

WINEHOUSE: I don't at all because, you know, my music is not on that scale - the music is not on that scale. Sometimes I wish it was, but I don't think I'm going to be at all famous. I don't think I could handle it. I'd probably go mad, you know. I mean, I would go mad.

NEARY: Do you think that's really what happened - that she really was just too vulnerable for the fame that eventually did overtake her?

KAPADIA: I think a big part of the learning experience, I guess, of making this film was to see this younger Amy, who I'd never seen before and I never really heard about, who was very vulnerable. You know, you can see she's got this talent; she's uncomfortable. In one part, she's a show-off, like that first clip you played, but on another side, she's quite low in self-esteem. She's worried about everything about her looks and how she is, and she's not sure she could handle the attention and the fame and I guess that idea of trying to show this real Amy became the interesting part - the journey. That's when I realized, oh, OK, I kind of understand her. She's actually quite ordinary. This idea of - she's not a star, she's a really ordinary girl-next-door who had an amazing talent, which suddenly thrust into a situation over which she lost all control. What she wasn't prepared for is being a pop star and everything that comes with it. That's not what she was searching for in life, it appears, from her own words.


WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I stay up, clean the house, at least I'm not drinking. Run around just so I don't have to think about thinking. That silent sense of content that everyone gets just disappears soon as the sun sets.

NEARY: You know, even before the fame overtook her, though, she was on her pretty self-destructive track. I mean, she started drinking and doing drugs at a pretty young age. She had a drinking problem for a long time, even before the heroine kicked in with her ex-husband. She was pretty self-destructive, don't you think?

KAPADIA: She definitely had an addictive personality because it came out of a lot of conversations with her friends, you know. Suddenly this young kid who, it appears, from a young age, did not have any boundaries - very few people around her saying no, stop, that's not right, don't do that. So if it was buying flowers, she'd fill up the flat with flowers. If she went out to buy shoes, she'd buy 30 pairs of shoes. If it was CDs, she bought 200 CDs because from a very young age, she had a record deal. She had more money than her parents. She had absolute freedom to do what she wanted. She wants a tattoo, she gets loads of tattoos. That was just her personality. It was somehow built in her in a way that was never dealt with. So it may be drinking, it may be cannabis, it may be hard drugs, it could be love, it could be anything; everything she did, she did to the maximum. And that's kind of what made her who she was, I guess.

NEARY: Well, her father's been very critical of the film. How have you responded to that?

KAPADIA: I mean, it's difficult. OK, he - a father has lost a daughter, it's a very awkward situation. What we have tried to do is try to show as honest a portrayal of the essence of what was going on. And if you listen carefully and read carefully what her father's criticisms are, they're quite specific. They're not about most of the film because it's essentially made out of archive of what people were saying, what people were doing at a time. The actual criticisms are about a couple of lines here, a couple of words here and whether or not we showed enough of the latter period of her life.


WINEHOUSE: (Singing) We only say goodbye with words. I died a hundred times. You go back to her, and I go back to black.

NEARY: The film is very damning of the celebrity culture that overwhelmed her - that exists - that still exists, and I think, as a viewer, I was really stunned by it. I had no idea how much the paparazzi was chasing her. And during those scenes, I almost couldn't take the blinding of the lights in the theater that were sort of flashing around her.

KAPADIA: I mean, that footage - I've seen hundreds of hours of it. You cannot believe how much material there is like that because that became normal for her. That became normal. At a particular point in time in London, my feeling was we had to put this footage in the film to show how nasty, violent, how visceral it is. You've got a young girl - very petite young girl - surrounded by 50 guys with a lump of metal, chasing her. It's quite an abusive situation that we're looking at there. It felt really strange that the business wasn't protecting her. It felt strange that her team didn't seem to be protecting her.

NEARY: Do you, in any way, feel like the film is sort of complicit in that celebrity culture at all - that you are extending the public's fascination with Amy Winehouse and how terrible the end of her life was?

KAPADIA: It's obviously - it's a delicate balance that one has to strike. If you make a film about someone that's hounded by the press and then you make a film about them, you have to think, well, what are we trying to do here. What I hope comes out of the film is that there's a kind of a humanity of the girl that we are revealing, which I think, particularly in the U.S., people only came to know her after the success of "Back To Black." The first album never really came out. Nobody knows that young Amy - that funny, intelligent, bright-eyed, amazing - that girl never ever made it to the U.S. And so I hope by meeting that girl and by taking off the beehive, take off the makeup, take her off the pedestal and the stage - you meet someone who actually one could relate to. You just think she's a cool girl, she's funny. And then it's kind of quite shocking and sad - it's terribly sad. And it makes a lot of people angry when you see what happens to her later on in such a short space of time. The intention of the film isn't to exploit her again, but to somehow rebalance the image that the world has of Amy.


WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Lent you outsiders and my new Badu.

NEARY: Asif Kapadia is the director of the documentary "Amy." The film comes out on July 10th. Thanks so much.

KAPADIA: Thank you. Great talking to you.


WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Tough to sort files with your voice in my head. So then I bribed you downstairs with a Marlboro Red. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.