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Controversial documentary captures Amy Winehouse

Was it too soon?

Filmmaker Asif Kapadia confronted that question time and again when he set out to make “Amy.” The new documentary is a powerful account of the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the soulful English pop singer and songwriter who sported a beehive and famously said “no, no, no” to rehab, only to succumb to her addictions at the cruel age of 27 in 2011.

“Everyone said, ‘It’s too soon. Let her rest in peace,’ ” says Kapadia, who began working on the film a little more than a year after her death. “When I was approached, even I felt it was too soon. In a way, the voices you hear in the film are raw because that’s the first time they’ve spoken publicly about Amy. If you wait 10 years, you fix a few things in your brain and the way you remember them. You want the moment where it’s still fresh.”

“Amy,” which opens here on Friday, is unflinching in its brutal honesty, unafraid to examine why Winehouse was such a singular musical force but also deeply troubled from an early age. She was, as someone says in the documentary, “an old soul in a young body,” who clearly wasn’t designed for or even hungry for worldwide fame. As her notoriety grew — from trainwreck live performances to paparazzi shots of her bloodied and disheveled on London streets — she wasted away before the glare of flashbulbs and the public’s intense scrutiny. She couldn’t shake her demons, largely because they had helped to make her a star.


Drawing from private video footage of a young Winehouse and more than a hundred interviews with her family, friends, lovers, and business associates, the film uses voice-overs instead of talking heads on camera. It’s sometimes unnerving to see Winehouse and those Cleopatra eyes stare back at us in nearly every frame. Kapadia employed the same technique for “Senna,” his acclaimed 2011 documentary about Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna.


Director Asif Kapadia. Leslie Hassler

As buzz has built around “Amy,” including criticism from her family, Kapadia spoke by phone about why Winehouse still matters and why her story will continue to haunt us.

Q. Seeing “Amy” is akin to watching a movie about the Titanic. You know it doesn’t have a happy ending, and yet you still walk away rattled by what happened to her. Were you surprised by the layers of Amy’s story?

A. Yes. I don’t think anyone really knew, and the ones who did hadn’t really spoken before. We only find out about these people once they become famous. What I realize now is that the girl who became famous was half the person she was before. In the beginning, all I had was an instinct and I had hoped the film would have more layers. It turned out that Amy was a very complicated person. We think we know her story, because we saw it, and then we realize everything we saw was not actually how it was.

Q. The people you interviewed gave very personal testimonies. Was it hard to earn their trust?

A. Most of the people I spoke to had never given an interview, written a book, been on TV, or sold their story to a newspaper. You don’t know who they are, so there was no go-to person who knew Amy’s story. I started with a blank piece of paper and wandering around going, “Someone talk to me.” The first person to really trust me was Nick Shymansky, Amy’s first manager. After I earned his trust, he opened up his laptop and showed me all these videos he had recorded of Amy when she was young. That’s when I knew I had a movie. That footage showed me who she really was. It was the person I was searching for.


Q. What was your relationship with her family when you began the project?

A. The only way we could make the film was to have everyone — the label, the estate — sign off on the film. I met with people and said we’re only going to do this if we’re left alone to make it and allowed to talk to everybody. There’s no big secret. Everybody knows how the story turned out. Everybody knows she died of alcohol [poisoning]. We have to deal with all of that. The movie has been edited and shortened, but it is the essence of what was going on around her.

Q. Did her estate have any say or influence on the film’s final cut?

A. No. We showed it to them because we have to do our best to get our facts right. We showed it to a lot of the people we spoke to before it was finished. I felt I owed it to them. There are loads of things in the film that people aren’t happy with, but they’re still in there.


Q. Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, has been a vocal opponent of the way the film portrays him as opportunistic. Did you expect that reaction?

A. I wasn’t expecting it, but I kind of thought it might happen. The thing is, we were making this film about her and it’s called “Amy.” There were decisions made that weren’t the best for her, and I think that’s uncomfortable for certain people. We were trying to be honest to Amy and make an honest film. We’re not picking on a single person or attacking anyone.

Q. A lot of early commentary on the movie has centered on the idea that we, as a society, were complicit in Amy’s downfall. Are people telling you they feel guilty after watching it?

A. They are, and I’m glad because, I’ll be honest, that was something that became very clear. I wanted it to be part of the process of watching the film. I think we’re all complicit. We all watched this happen, we all looked and laughed, and yet nobody was stopping it. That’s where I thought this film became more important in a way, and the question becomes what are we going to do about it the next time it happens?

Q. Right after seeing “Amy,” I was wandering around a park and feeling heavy-hearted about her legacy. Then, all of a sudden, I passed a woman busking on the street and she started singing one of Amy’s songs.


A. That happens to me all the time. It really does your head in. And it’s going to keep happening. Amy somehow is everywhere, and everyone is one or two steps removed from her. In London, it’s multiplied; everyone I know knew her or went out with her. In the most unlikely place one of her songs will come on the radio, and it will affect you because suddenly you can’t hear that song the same way anymore.

Interview was condensed and edited. James Reed can be reached at james.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.