By Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Asif Kapadia has a taste for remarkable documentaries, not only the quality of the work but their dramatic focus. His 2011 doc “Senna” followed Brazil’s world champion of Formula 1 racing from his privileged youth until his death on the track. Much of the race footage, including the instants leading up to Ayrton Senna’s disastrous accident, was captured by the camera mounted on his car.
“Amy,” Kapadia’s new account of the brief life of English soul diva Amy Winehouse, covers her difficult childhood, supernova stardom and drug-drenched collapse. Much of its footage was shot by her friends with their phones. In each case Kapadia creates touching, even heartbreaking films about people with remarkable talent heading toward fatalities we already know. Neither uses a narrator to hold the audience’s hand.
“Both of them were different challenges,” Kapadia said in a phone interview. “I didn’t begin in documentary. My background is in drama so I’m not a fan of long dialog scenes. I try to tell a story as visually as possible, make it cinematic, make it a movie. Something the audience has to watch to pay attention.”
Showing rather than telling was a film technique he called “not the easiest way to make the movie, but the most honest to me as a filmmaker.” “Amy” took two years of panning through existing footage with a team of 10 researchers, producers and editors.
Kapadia says making any film is tough, those about real people who died young even more so. Sometimes the people around them haven’t come to terms with their deaths. “Amy’s friends are still in denial or mourning. It’s quite heavy to get a sense of what it’s like to be that person. Particularly because I never met Amy, never saw her live. I was an outsider,” coming to the project without any personal baggage. Devoid of an agenda, he formed his opinions from what he learned.
“She was at the beginning — a really funny, talented, bright, charismatic, amazing girl. Extraordinary intelligence, but just the simple girl down the road” he said. Unraveling the complexity of why things turned out as they did was a harder challenge.
Those remembering her offered contradictory views of who was her best friend, who could have done more to stop her drug habit, who was at fault, he said. “And unfortunately at no point did anyone come together for her. Everyone was doing it in a way for themselves.” Kapadia said he talked to 100 people for the film and 99 of those insiders said they felt his film was honest, though some have avoided saying so publicly. Only Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, has come out to say he’s unhappy with the film.
“Making the film as I did, I was using archive” footage, he said. “So it’s not just my opinion” when Mitch is shown exploiting his daughter’s fame rather than pushing for rehabilitation. “We had a single person saying we’re kind of making things up. We’re showing what was actually going on when lots of people were making decisions that were not in her best interest.”
A film like “Amy,” he said, is “literally a mosaic. You pick up a little colored stone and you look at it and think it’s rubbish. You put it in the picture and you go, ‘Oh. God, that’s a key part of the story. We just didn’t know it.’ You just have to see everything and talk to everyone. You never know when that little piece is going to come in handy.”