Jordan Levin

Director of Amy Winehouse documentary on his buzzed-about film

A young Amy Winehouse in Miami
A young Amy Winehouse in Miami Nick Shymansky

The recently released documentary Amy, on British singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse, tells the story of how a talented young girl shot to stardom and quickly slid into alcoholism and drug addiction that killed her in 2011 at just 27. The film has earned rave reviews and broken box office records for a documentary opening in Britain and the United States. Director Asif Kapadia talked to the Herald about Amy, which incorporates a host of unseen archival footage and new interviews and shows how the music industry, the media and the people closest to Winehouse were complicit in her destruction.

What drew you to this story? You weren’t a fan of Winehouse’s music, and she had been covered so much.

The big connection for me was that she was a local girl. I’m a North Londoner, she’s a North Londoner. You hear these stories about rock stars, and they come from another universe. She felt like someone I could have gone to school with or bumped into at the local bus stop. She was one of us. It was so personal.

So it was about how this could happen to any of us?

People talk about famous people like they’re a different species. To me, she was very ordinary. I wanted to show who she really was, so we might be a little bit more sympathetic to her, find more in common with her. It’s so much easier for everyone to mock her, to attack her for her weaknesses. There’s a lot of nasty bullying going on. There are loads of clips online, and ordinary people write the most hideous things about her. We should show more compassion for someone who’s obviously troubled. She’s just an ordinary kid, with ordinary issues of self-esteem, family issues, personal issues. She happened to be a brilliant singer, but there was a lot more to her. She’s funny; she’s really intelligent. She had so much going for her, and it got lost in the mud.

When did you realize that talking to the usual suspects — her family, her label — was not going to be enough?

Early on, I made it clear to everybody that the only way it’s gonna work is if I can talk to everyone. Rather than it being a film with lots of famous people saying ‘Oh, she was a great singer.’ It has to get under the skin.

How did you get her first manager, Nick Shymansky, and her oldest friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, to talk to you?

Nick was the first one. He was a big fan of Senna [Kapadia’s documentary on race car driver Ayrton Senna] and he said I’m only meeting with you because of that film. It’s too soon. I’m not ready. I don’t want to do it. And we met and got talking, and we got along. We’re kind of similar — again, it was a London thing. I wasn’t pushing him. Senna took five years to make. Amy took three years to make. I’m not in a rush. I’m not gonna bully someone into doing something they’re not comfortable with. Eventually he said OK, I can trust you. Once he started speaking, he had to get it all out. If you’ve got an issue you’re carrying on your shoulders, and you feel like it’s only you that knows it, and it’s causing you pain — that’s affecting his life. So the whole process became quite therapeutic. He then spoke to Juliette and Lauren. It took nine months for us to get them into the room. But when they did talk, again, it was very emotional. At the end of the process, all of them said it’s been important for them to grieve and talk about Amy and to feel like they could get on with their lives. These people had almost stopped living their lives because they were so torn and angry about what happened to Amy.

At the end her bodyguard seemed like her only friend. That was so sad.

Really sad. No one’s heard of this stuff. But if you know the inner circle, everyone talks about how important he was and how he became this father figure she was searching for. A lot of people said they would only talk to me if he gave permission. This little group of Jamaican guys were a family to her at the end.

There are so many layers to the film, to her story and to the way you tell it. Did you plan that?

I’m not a big one for planning. It was almost an experiment, doing a film with no script. It was the first time I’ve worked this way. But with Amy, there’s never a boring moment, there’s always some drama. The interviews were my research in order to understand the story, and they became a key part of the movie. Through talking to people, listening to music in the car, reading the lyrics, suddenly I realize the lyrics are actually the map. The songs are the spine of the movie. The lyrics are her at her most eloquent. Particularly in the last period around Back to Black, she stopped giving interviews, so the lyrics really helped us get into her head and under her skin. Each part of the process informs the other part.

Tell me more about her lyrics and connecting that to her life.

They’re basically her diary. At times, the film is almost like pages from her diary. She’s obviously a really good writer. She’s got a young way of writing and talking, but she’s also super intelligent and ahead of her peers. She used to put down her feelings and problems in her diaries, and the pages developed into poems, and the poems developed into songs. It was her therapy for dealing with her problems.

Did anyone else figure this out?

You’d think someone would have mentioned it. I’m sure people have. But I feel we were the first ones to connect all the dots. Amy compartmentalized the people around her. Lots of people knew different things. Our job was to become the experts, to connect everyone.

The movie makes you feel there was something amoral with the way people took advantage of her and how the entertainment industry and the media consumed her. It seemed cannibalistic.

You’ve put it very well. The machine just went into overdrive on every level. And she was caught in the middle. It looked like she was self-medicating to not deal with it. You’ve got this girl who, like Mos Def says, was trying to disappear.

I’ve read that her family and father objected to the movie. Can you say why?

He says he objects, but then he also says people should go see the film. It’s not major things that he disagreed with, there’s literally a few words in the film later on. But the film is made up of what he was doing and saying at the time. We’re not trying to point the finger at any single person. But there were choices everyone was making that didn’t seem to be the best for her.

Do you think what happened to her is inevitable when you get to be that famous that quickly?

I don’t want to believe anything like that is inevitable. You need a team who are going to look out for your best interests. You can’t just say “aw, there’s nothing you can do.” For me, there have to be choices that people make.

She was so smart and self-aware. Why do you think she couldn’t save herself?

She just more and more went within herself. When she overdosed, I think it caused some sort of damage to her brain and her thinking. She stopped being the person that she used to be and became less and less able to make decisions that are good for her. Or she’s making the worst decisions, waiting for someone that’s gonna jump in and save her. Almost like a kid waiting for an adult to step in. And they don’t.

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