Amy Winehouse documentary wins raves but angers family
LONDON—In “Amy,” performers as diverse as Yasiin Bey and Tony Bennett sing the praises of the late Amy Winehouse, and the documentary helps reclaim the talented, troubled singer as a musician, rather than a mess.
Critics love it—but it has left her family hurt and angry.
The singer’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has branded the film inaccurate and misleading. He claims director Asif Kapadia depicts the family as doing too little to help the singer overcome addiction.
“They have selectively edited what I said to suggest that me and my family were against her getting any kind of treatment,” Mitch Winehouse told The Associated Press. “We took her dozens of times to detox and rehab over the years.”
Amy Winehouse died at 27 of accidental alcohol poisoning in July 2011, after a battle with drink and drugs that played out in front of the cameras and on tabloid front pages.
Kapadia, the British director of the acclaimed Formula 1 documentary “Senna,” defends his film as a rounded portrait of the artist, built from more than 100 interviews with people who knew Winehouse. Childhood friends of Winehouse and first manager Nick Shymansky opened up to him. So did the singer’s drug-troubled ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil and musical collaborators including producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, musician Bey (the former Mos Def) and Bennett, who calls Winehouse “the truest jazz singer I ever heard.”
Kapadia said the range of Winehouse’s famous fans is a sign of her musical stature and ability to feel at home in many worlds.
“She knew the dustman and she knew Mos Def. And she could talk to Tony Bennett and she could hang out with Questlove—she was amazing,” the director said at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere in May. “The best of every genre (said) ‘She’s the real deal.'”
Avoiding the documentary staple of talking heads, Kapadia he layers audio interviews over archive images, including home movies and camera-phone footage of the young Winehouse shot by her friends. The approach meant Kapadia could conduct interviews off-camera, sometimes sitting in the dark to make subjects feel more at ease.
Most had never spoken publicly about Winehouse. Kapadia says many found the experience cathartic.
Mitch Winehouse, however, argues that the film omits many of those who were close to Amy in the final years of her life, when she had kicked drugs and tried to reduce her drinking.
“The film portrays Amy as in a downward spiral from 2008 to 2011,” he said. “They don’t want people to understand that in that last three years there were some terrible times, but there were some wonderful times.”
Kapadia says he’s sorry the family feels let down, but insists the film is “not about them. It’s about her.” He says he’s not trying to blame anyone for the death of the singer, who also battled depression and bulimia.
“Life is much more complicated,” he said. “I have depression in my family. I have mental illness in my family. It’s not simple.”
Despite the Winehouse family’s disapproval, fans will likely cherish the film for its look at the singer’s vulnerable private side—and for its reminder of her talent.
For someone whose life was so closely documented, Winehouse has left a relatively slim musical legacy. There were two albums during her lifetime—the jazz-influenced “Frank” and the global smash “Back to Black”—and one posthumous collection, “Lioness: Hidden Treasures.” There may not be any more—Universal Music UK boss David Joseph told Billboard magazine that he had destroyed her demo tapes so the unfinished material could never be released.
While “Amy” depicts a media-fueled personal tragedy, Kapadia said he also wanted to celebrate an artist and her creative process.
“For me that’s a big part of it, the artistic journey that she goes through,” he said. “The diary that she writes that becomes a poem that becomes lyrics—and the lyrics are fantastic. So much better than anyone realized.
“There’s a lot of layers in there. … She can drop in Thelonious Monk. She can talk about Nas. She can talk about this, she can talk about that, and somehow it works.”
Winehouse’s songs were deeply personal—as their titles reveal, from “Addicted” to “Rehab” to “Love is a Losing Game.” They always sounded poignant; doubly so now.
Kapadia said since her death, “you cannot hear those songs the same way ever again. But you will hear, ‘God, she was good.'”
“Amy” opens in the US and Britain on Friday.