THE HELL OF FAME: Amy Winehouse Documentary Lets Nobody Off the Hook

Published on May 21, 2015

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From BAFTA award-winning director Asif Kapadia (SENNA), AMY tells the incredible story of six-time Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse – in her own words.

Featuring extensive unseen archive footage and previously unheard tracks, this strikingly modern, moving and vital film shines a light on the world we live in, in a way that very few can.

A once-in-a-generation talent, Amy Winehouse was a musician that captured the world’s attention. A pure jazz artist in the most authentic sense – she wrote and sung from the heart using her musical gifts to analyse her own problems. The combination of her raw honesty and supreme talent resulted in some of the most unique and adored songs of the modern era.

Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless and invasive media attention which coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle saw her life tragically begin to unravel.
Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27.

Release Date: 3 July 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Stars: Amy Winehouse
Genres: Documentary | Biography | Music
Country: UK
Production Co: Playmaker Films, Universal Music
Distributor: Altitude FIlm Distribution (UK)


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Built on more than 100 interviews and piles of archival footage, the film fleshes out a nuanced character portrait of Amy Winehouse. Credit: Nick Shymansky/A24

Barely a year after the death of Amy Winehouse, the hard-living retro soul star turned tabloid obsession who died in 2011 after a public fight with addiction, the singer’s family and record label decided it was time to make a documentary about her legacy.

With the release this Friday of “Amy,” directed by Asif Kapadia, after amuch-lauded premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, those who put the project in motion may not have gotten exactly what they expected.

Built on more than 100 interviews and piles of archival footage, including home movies and paparazzi clips, the film fleshes out a nuanced character portrait from a familiar “Behind the Music” arc: prodigious child from a broken home reluctantly finds fame, then self-destructs, potential unfulfilled, with a hand from enablers in her inner circle. While Mr. Kapadia avoids definitive finger-pointing in “Amy,” there is enough blame — and guilt — to go around, with Ms. Winehouse’s ex-husband, management team and the gossip-mongering public all indicted to varying degrees.


Ms. Winehouse with Nick Shymansky, her first manager.CreditNick Shymansky/A24

But it’s the singer’s father, Mitchell Winehouse, a London cabby before building his own music career on the back of his daughter’s, who believes he was portrayed “in the worst possible light,” as he told The Guardian ahead of the film’s premiere. The Winehouse family has since disassociated itself from “Amy” entirely, saying in a statement, “It is both misleading and contains some basic untruths.” (Mr. Winehouse declined to be interviewed.)

Mr. Kapadia said that full creative control was a non-negotiable demand when Universal Music U.K., Ms. Winehouse’s label, approached him in 2012 with the promise of full access to her musical catalog and the blessing of Mr. Winehouse. “The whitewashy-type film was never going to work,” Mr. Kapadia said by phone recently from his North London home.

“The very first conversation I had with everybody was: ‘Look, we all know how this ended. There are no surprises here. It wasn’t pretty, and we have to deal with that,’ “ he said. “It was the only way worth doing it.”

Like “Amy,” the director’s previous documentary “Senna” (2011), about the Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, ends with a premature death and was similarly constructed with no on-camera testimonials. But there was a key difference: “With Senna, there was just a lot of love and positivity around him,” Mr. Kapadia said. “Sadly, Amy was the opposite.”

Rather than focus entirely on Ms. Winehouse’s demise, the director — who said he had minimal knowledge of the singer’s life and only a passing familiarity with her music when he signed on to the film — sought to deconstruct the train-wreck narrative and junkie caricature (messy beehive hairdo, bruises and scars, smudged mascara) that dominated Ms. Winehouse’s later years. “Get rid of the beehive,” he said. “It’s a mask hiding the real Amy.”

Although those closest to Ms. Winehouse prefame were initially reluctant to talk, believing it was too soon, the filmmakers’ breakthrough came in the form of Nick Shymansky, who met the singer when she was 16 and worked as her first manager.

After finally agreeing to meet Mr. Kapadia, Mr. Shymansky visited the director’s editing suite, where the walls were covered in research and a detailed timeline of Ms. Winehouse’s life.

“It was like going into a murder detective’s office,” Mr. Shymansky said. “It was shocking, but there was also a sense of relief. It felt like they were on their own mission to make a film that was truthful.” He, along with two close childhood friends of Ms. Winehouse, decided together to participate.

Crucially, Mr. Shymansky had an obsession with cameras. He handed over to the filmmakers about 12 hours of video footage from Ms. Winehouse’s early career.

The emotional core of “Amy” is in these candid moments — Ms. Winehouse belting jazz songs at a club or alternating between moody and flirtatious in a cab. “Most people didn’t realize she was fun to be around,” Mr. Kapadia said.

There were unsettling revelations as well. James Gay-Rees, a producer on “Amy,” said, “It was darker than we had anticipated.”


Ms. Winehouse, right, playing guitar with Juliette Ashby as teenagers in a scene from the documentary “Amy.” CreditJuliette Ashby/A24

Chris King, the film’s editor, said the “Amy” team found that the singer was spending about $16,000 a week on hard drugs , including heroin and crack cocaine at the peak of her usage.

“Amy” also details her binge drinking (she died of alcohol toxicity at 27), as well as her largely overlooked bulimia. It traces Ms. Winehouse’s rocky relationships, including her marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil — a fellow addict who says he introduced her to hard drugs — back to her parents’ divorce when she was 9.

In one important episode, which Ms. Winehouse recounted in her biggest hit, “Rehab,” Mr. Shymansky describes trying to get her into a treatment center after an alcohol-fueled episode in 2005. At the time, she deferred to her father, who deemed it unnecessary. According to Mr. Winehouse, he told the filmmakers, “She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time,” but his last three words were edited out.

Mr. Shymansky sees the quibble as a form of denial. “He’s still refusing to question that maybe, just maybe, he got that wrong,” he said.

The Winehouse family said in its statement that “addiction cannot begin to be treated properly until the individual helps themselves,” adding, “Amy was an adult who could never be told what she could and could not do.”

In the film, she is shown on the night of her big Grammy win in 2008, during a sober period, celebrating with friends and family. Ms. Winehouse’s takeaway: “This is so boring without drugs.”

Her struggle to stay clean is shown in “Amy” to be complicated by competing interests and outside forces, including a management team eager to get her back on the road and a father distracted by fame.

“I just can’t believe they were able to critique and question the management and the father,” Mr. Shymansky said, especially considering their early involvement in the film.

David Joseph, the chairman and chief executive of Universal Music U.K., is credited as an executive producer on “Amy,” and Mr. Kapadia acknowledged, “I’m not sure they were expecting this film.” But he added, “I can only say they haven’t interfered.”

While the documentary may result in renewed interest in her music, “I’m hoping there’s a bigger picture,” Mr. Kapadia said, including discussions of addiction and mental illness.

For Mr. Shymansky, “Amy” represented a chance to right the course of Ms. Winehouse’s historical standing, while being definitive enough to “allow her legacy to breathe,” he said.

“I hope after this that everyone leaves her alone for a bit.”

About Diana fka Desi Foxx

Blogger/Writer/Activist; Small Business Systems Consultant; Undergraduate in Computer Related Crime Investigations.

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