Remembering Amy

Remembering Amy Asif Kapadia

For Amy, it was drama from the beginning—a tragic tale built for mass consumption. She had mastered the art of translating her grief, her romantic ruminations, her disappointments with men, into beautiful, haunting music that turned into Grammy-winning anthems overnight. Amy was an enigma—a seductive songstress with an absurd hairdo and a tiny frame, but a voice that could hit you like a cannon ball. The television and the tabloids transformed her into a dysfunctional goddess. Crowds worshipped her, followed her, imitated her and fed on every morsel of information they could get a hold of through the media. As Nick Johnstone, author of Amy Amy Amy would go on to write, ‘Everyone wanted a piece of her.’ 
On her birth anniversary, we revisit our interview with filmmaker Asif Kapadia whose documentary delved into the depths of Amy's life. 
Archival footage forms the backbone of his directorial language—ingeniously, he pieces together footage shot at varying points of time, to mould a narrative that is truthful and visceral in its account of retelling the icons’ story. His eccentric and arguably ground-breaking style has brought him much acclaim, celebrating him as one of the most gifted documentarians of contemporary times. Asif on Amy:

Before venturing out to make a biopic on Amy, what was the relationship that you shared with her?
When I started making the film, I knew her songs, I knew her voice, I had the records, but I didn’t know her—I had never met her. I normally make films about subjects I don’t really know too much about; I learn on the journey. Now of course, I know a lot about her—I’ve seen so many of her incredible performances etc. What is interesting about her is that it’s not just the voice, it’s the writing. For me the hardest thing ever is to write something that is original, emotional, personal, which has depth and humour. You’ll learn and will be surprised to know how funny and intelligent she is! When you meet her young, she is so different to the person who becomes famous. I think that was a big part of her journey. The more I sat down and watched her [footage], the more I learned about her and felt it was a story that needed to be told, because people have such a skewed idea of who she was, and there is so much more to her than just the voice.

Remembering Amy

How did you immerse yourself into her highly intense, glamorized world? Where did you begin?
Well, I just started talking to people. I interviewed people: we would just sit down and have a chat; there was no agenda. I mean, I had a lot of questions, but I never got around to asking them. I would just let them talk, and through talking, one thing would lead to another. Most of the people I spoke to had been carrying a lot of pressure and pain inside of them and nobody had ever spoken to them. Since I was not a part of her story, because I was not connected to her life or was in the music business, they felt free to tell me what they really felt. It became almost like this therapeutic process for them. 

I interviewed over a 100 people. During those interviews, they would tell me, ‘Look, I have this video, I have this photograph, I have these phone messages’—and they’d share their memories [with me]. So the film is not only their interviews, but also the memories they have of Amy. They shared material that they held very close to them, and they trusted me enough by giving them to me to put it in the film. So the film is a construction of the material that I discovered as I was going around talking to people. In a way, this is a film within a film. 

During these interviews, what was the first most striking bit about her that hit you? 
I think it was the humour. When she is young, she looks so healthy—she’s got such wit, and her eyes are amazing and beautiful and bright. She’s very different to the person who eventually became famous. Of course, when she’s young, you can see all of her issues already being there, but they really begin to surface when money, fame and wrong people around her enter her life. It all kind of explodes! She began doing a lot of things to keep herself medicated to numb the pain that she was in. There was a lot of stuff that happened around her and at that time, she just wanted to shut herself from the world. It felt like she became a bit of a recluse. So, it’s a complicated story and journey. But really, it was her humour that was a big revelation, and her incredible ability as a writer.  

Remembering Amy

Could you talk a bit about who Amy was as an adolescent?
I would say that you just need to read the lyrics of her songs. The clue is already there—she’s talked about it all. It’s very hard to explain, because there are so many elements to her. So there is no one obvious answer. It’s real life which is much more complex—family, friends, boyfriends, husbands, depression, drink, drugs, falling in love, being dumped by the one you love—so many things happened to her that created insecurities within her that manifested themselves in many ways. Then she became famous and was surrounded by people where she wondered, ‘Are they here because they like me or because I’m rich and I’m famous?’ And if you’re not sure of yourself, if you are not confident, then you don’t know who to trust. So these were all issues that were intrinsic to her life.   

Amy was constantly followed—it were the cameras that catapulted her into stardom, it were the cameras that brought her fame, and it was this fame that unfortunately dictated her downfall. Now, it is the footage of these cameras that tell the world her story.
Yeah, I mean the cameras are a big part of the story. When you see the film, you’ll realize that it starts off with the camera being friendly towards her—the videos are basically footage shot by her friends, her first manager, her boyfriend—you know, people who she knows and loves. However, slowly as you go along, her relationship with the camera becomes darker and in a way, more violent. You can see her becoming more and more afraid of the camera, because rather than friendly people filming her (and her filming herself a lot as well), it becomes people who are filming her to sell the footage. It becomes paparazzi—you see people using the camera to humiliate her. So the camera, rather than being a friendly tool which helps you take a photograph and make a memory, becomes a means that attacks her. That’s very much a part of the movie experience.

Remembering Amy Photography: Leslie Hasler

Asif Kapadia

Photography: Leslie Hasler

The irony about biopics is that most of us already know the individual’s life story and more importantly, we know how it’s going to end. In the case of Amy, we already know that the narrative has a sad ending. Was that a cause of worry?
Well, that’s where the filmmaking comes in. Of course you know the ending, but you don’t know why that ending happened. It is the beginning that is really important. You know that her story ends a certain way, but my questions always are, ‘Why did it happen? How did it happen?’ And that’s why I made the film, because it made no sense to me as to why someone would die that young in this day and age in front of our eyes? Why was it possible? How was it possible? Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop it? So the film is really going backwards from that point—you already know the ending, but the film tries to make you understand what all happened in between to reach that point. Amy’s life was very complicated—she was incredibly intelligent and complicated—so the film became my way to give you enough of the back story to understand how things transpired. 

Text Radhika Iyengar