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New documentary ‘Amy’ reveals an artist greater than her downfall

Amy Winehouse was a mega-pop star, a singer with a multi-platinum album. But she's just as well-known for her struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and her troubled relationships, which played out in front of the paparazzi before her death in 2011 at age 27. A new documentary by Asif Kapadia, “Amy,” tries to paint a more nuanced and compassionate portrait of the artist. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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    Next: A new documentary takes an intimate look at the life and death of Amy Winehouse.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.


    July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse, the British mega pop star, was found dead from alcohol poisoning in her London home. She was 27 years old. Four years earlier, she'd released her multi-platinum album, "Back to Black," including the hit song "Rehab."

    Her music was one window into her life. It told of addictions to drugs and alcohol and troubled relationships, much of which played out in public in front of cameras, lots of them. But now the new documentary "Amy" uses cameras in another way, home movies, behind-the-scenes videos, phone footage and more, to build what director Asif Kapadia told me is a more complete portrait of the artist.

    ASIF KAPADIA, Director, "Amy": And my aim was to try to humanize her, as much as possible.

    She didn't have a very good rep, particularly here in the U.S. People knew her songs, but the word that comes up the most in interviews is train wreck, which is not a nice way to sum up a young girl.

    So, really, my aim overall for the film was to humanize her, to show you how brilliant she was, and for you to kind of fall in love her. When you fall in love with her, then you feel very different when you see the archive footage of the paparazzi and her being hounded.

    And then the idea was to make people slightly uncomfortable. And a lot of people have said they feel a bit angry by the end, because then you realize there was kind of a very special soul there.

  • MAN:

    How big do you think you are going to be?

  • AMY WINEHOUSE, Musician:

    I don't. I don't, because my music is not on that scale. My music is not on that scale. Sometimes, I wish it was. But I don't think I'm going to be at all fine with — I don't think I could handle it. I would probably go mad. Do you know what I mean? I would go mad.


    Kapadia gained access to footage from Winehouse's family, friends and record company and made what he calls a mosaic. We rarely see the faces of those talking. What we do see in every possible light is Amy herself.


    I wouldn't write unless it was directly personal to me, just because I wouldn't be able to tell the story right.


    I find her face and her eyes so expressive. But you just see the way they change gradually over time, her hair, her body shape, all of that.

    For me, this is more cinematic. This is a more of a theatrical experience, where you just spend two hours with the lead person, the lead character who is in front of you, and not so much worrying about who's talking, because they're giving you an opinion. And you're — really, the audience has to piece together everything that is going on and form their own opinion.


    Winehouse grew up in North London listening to jazz singers, and then created her own sound and phenomenon through a powerful voice, raw lyrics, and sheer force of a personality that is sometimes frightened, sometimes funny and often ferocious.



    Oh, it's a bit upsetting at the end, isn't it?


    She's just a natural artist. She picks up a guitar, goes up on the stage, sings and blows you away.

    So, really, the biggest revelation for me was to understand her personality, to understand that these songs were personal, and they're like pages from her diary. And there's problems with addiction and the relationships and the choices that she made and people around her made.

    Then you follow it through and you realize, actually, enough of the issues are already there, but they're just about under control. When you become mega-famous and suddenly the paparazzi are after you, it all got a bit out of control. Suddenly, she had become a global star. And it was something that she was a bit fearful of right from a young age.


    But if the intimacy of the camera draws us in, the vulture-like pursuit and glare of constant cameras, including those of the paparazzi, repel us.

  • MAN:

    Amy Winehouse is back in rehab.


    As we watch Winehouse's life unravel. ASIF KAPADIA: The idea is to kind of make that feel as visceral as possible, for us, the audience, to be in the middle of it.

    I mean, literally, we are one of the camerapeople in the middle of it hounding Amy. There's a recurring theme too in the film on a kind of aesthetic side, which is that we, the audience, become the person holding the camera.

    It starts off kind of innocent. She's always performing in a way for the camera. Later on, it becomes more and more aggressive and more and more painful. And I guess we, the audience, were the people watching these videos. We're clicking on those YouTube videos of her giving bad performances, where somebody is buying those tabloid newspapers. The feeling was, the intention was to make the audience slightly complicit, to make us wonder about how much did we play a part in her downturn.


    Also called into question, the role of some of those closest to Winehouse. Her family, after working with the filmmaker, disassociated itself from the movie, saying it was — quote — "both misleading and contained some basic untruths."

    Asif Kapadia says this:


    The aim was never to point a finger in a particular direction or apportion blame, but the whole thing became very muddy and cloudy and messy.

    Most of the people who have seen the film who were on the inner circle, who were there, even if they don't come out of it well, have all said the film is honest. And, most importantly, the person who comes out of it best is Amy. And I guess that is what I was hoping to achieve.


    I'm not a girl trying to be a star. I'm just a girl that sings.


    The documentary "Amy" opens today in theaters across the nation.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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