I feel like my heart has been broken, just a little bit, this evening.
Asif Kapadia’s two hour documentary about the singer, Amy Whinehouse, who died aged only 27, is a wonderfully personal and extremely moving portrait of a young woman, desperate FOR love and desperate TO love, whose internal demons were stoked by the trappings of her success: from the mind-blowing media attention, and the pressure on her to perform, to the money and fame-hungry hangers-on.
A mentally unstable young woman with a long-standing eating disorder and substance abuse issues, who was trying to regain her health and some normality, when her body finally gave up.
Much of Amy’s story is told through her two best friends who had known her since childhood, as well as through Nicky Shymansky, who discovered her when he was a 19 year-old wannabe A&R guy and she was just 16. Fascinating, and unexpected, insights also come from hip-hop artists Yasiin Bey, and Amy’s beloved producer, Salaam Remi, both of whom she was close to. These authentic voices and knowledge of ‘the real Amy’ and what she truly wanted in life reinforce the tragedy of her latter years and her early demise.
In the Q&A session after the screening, Asif revealed that he didn’t want to make this film, initially. In 2010, he’d released his first documentary, Senna, about the racing driver, which had taken him five years to make. The following year, in 2011, Amy died. Living in Kentish Town at the time, he’d witnessed some of the media circus that surrounded her in nearby Camden, but he’d never seen her sing and knew nothing about her other than the headlines.
When approached by Amy’s record company, Universal, a year after her death, to do a documentary about her, he thought it was far too soon, and slightly distasteful, to be thinking of that. So, he turned them down.
But Universal’s proposal had piqued Asif’s interest, so he started quietly doing some research on his own, thinking it would be a slow burn, if it came off at all. The more he learnt, the more fascinated he became. When researching Senna, it had felt like the driver’s life was full of light. Everyone would talk about him with joy. However, with Amy, it was very different. Her memory was surrounded by darkness and suspicion. People didn’t want to talk. It was as though they’d all taken a vow of silence over her.
Asif was intrigued. He agreed to do the film, Universal happily granted his request of full access to her catalogue and her family were completely supportive. He spent months hanging out with people, gaining their trust. Gradually, they opened up to him. At first no-one wanted to be on camera, so he would audio record conversations in a darkened studio and hope that the person speaking would sign the release form at the end. For this reason, the film is full of voiceovers from those sessions. As people relaxed around him, eventually they started admitting that they had home videos, answer phone messages, or notes from Amy, that Asif could check out. This includes her mother and a friend who had parts of Amy’s diary that they’d been hiding from the hangers-on, and which they eventually let him use.
In another film, all this might feel intrusive. Here, it doesn’t.
Asif describes listening to Amy’s CDs whilst driving and being struck by her lyrics. So, he put them centre stage in the film, up on the screen. They provide a heartbreaking timeline and insight into the various stages of Amy’s life.
Asif admits that the three years spent making the film took their toll. The last two years was spent editing the extensive amount of footage gathered, with his team. The year before that was spent talking to people around the world who knew Amy. He says that those interviews felt like therapy sessions. Everyone – from good friends, to journalists – seemed to feel burdened by guilt about Amy and everyone would end the interview crying. There seemed to be a universal (no pun intended) awareness that Amy was often pushed too far, despite being unstable – by those who claimed to love her, as well as by those that supposedly worked for or with her. Pressured into performing, or hounded by the media, at times when what she really needed was to stop everything and be looked after.
A lot has been written about this film. On the back of that, I did wonder if I was being just another voyeur. But I’m really, really glad that I’ve seen it. It’s easy to dismiss it as ‘not telling us anything new’ (as one woman said to Asif in the Q&A afterwards – which was a bit rude, I thought, but hey… ), but I disagree. When Amy passed away, people were shocked but not surprised and 99% assumed it was from a drug overdose.
Sadly, we’d forgotten the Amy that came before the crack and smack. This film brings that young girl back to life. Amy wrote her first album, Frank, when she was just 16/17 years old. And Back To Black when she was in her early twenties. When you see those early, amateur video clips, hear her sing and read her lyrics, you can’t help but be struck by the amazing natural talent that this intelligent and funny young girl from North London possessed.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that no single thing caused Amy’s demise. A perfect storm of bad decisions – many of which were inflicted on her by those around, who should have been protecting her, but some made by herself. Rather than trying to point the finger, or blame anyone, Asif and his team have allowed history to speak for itself and in doing so, have made what feels like a really truthful film.
I highly recommend it.