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Amy Winehouse’s legacy gets rehab in Asif Kapadia’s revealing documentary AMY

“She never does the same thing twice. It all depends on the vibe that she’s feeling then and there.”

Hers is a voice that comes along once in a generation. Before Adele began creating her aurally seductive earwigs that continue to captivate the world over, there was Amy Winehouse, the smoky London-bred singer who uniquely fused blues, jazz, and R&B stylings into something modern and magical. Sadly, Winehouse died of acute alcohol poisoning at age 27 in 2011, and her legacy is too often tied to tabloid tribulations and the parallels to her mega-hit Rehab rather than to her vivacious vocal talents.

Thankfully, we now have a brilliant documentary that serves to reclaim her more-than-deserved vocal-centric legacy — AMY, now available via Blu-ray and digital formats from A24/Lionsgate. (It’s also still showing in select theaters nationwide.) The film is directed by Asif Kapadia — who won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary for 2010’s Senna, his film about the late Brazilian Formula One racing champion Ayrton Senna. AMY recalibrates the spotlight right back where it belongs: directly on the inherent power and impact of Winehouse’s music, as well as the character of the woman who made it all seem almost effortless.

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“I think the thing we did the best we possibly could was show Amy as she really was — the real Amy,” says Kapadia, a native of North London, just as Amy was. “And the real Amy was funny, intelligent, witty, and bright. She was not just an amazing artist, but also a really good kid. Everyone I met somehow sort of fell in love with her. She had a certain gift of character. And she had this great talent as well, which was exciting.”

Digital Trends called Kapadia across the Pond to discuss how people feel about Winehouse today, the methodology of the film’s own audio rehab, and his thoughts on the best way to view AMY. She left, no time to regret.

Digital Trends: I’ve seen outlets like The Guardian acclaim AMY as being a “tragic masterpiece.” Is that an assessment you’re OK with, having those two words put together like that?

Asif Kapadia: Uh, I quite like the latter one. (both laugh) It’s so sad, isn’t it, that “tragic” has to come into it, but I guess it’s just sad — sad that this story had to happen.

I meet so many people who think Amy was great, and they have a lot of love and affection for her. They’ll say, “Oh, I wish I could have gone to her and given her a hug.” The sadness is this happens now, long after she’s gone. That’s the thing. People now realize who she was.

As I spoke to people, they would tell me about this girl, and this was not the girl I’d seen in the trades. That early footage in the film really made it clear. To me, she was just another North Londoner I would have hung out with. Her bawdiness and flirtiness, and her being funny — add all these things to an ordinary kid. She’s got the charisma.

A lot of the footage of Amy you use in the film came from people’s personal digital recorders.

Yeah, pretty much most of the film precedes the camera phone/iPhone era. A lot of that early stuff is MiniDV and home video cameras, DVD-recordables, stuff like that. Her middle-class friends all had cameras at home, and their parents did too. They filmed everything. That’s really how that came about.

Did you have to do a lot of clean-up work in post-production?

No! We’ve done two films like this, Senna being the first one. The whole point is, you have to look invisible. Nobody knows how much work goes into taking out shakiness, taking out glitches, doing smoothing, or what you have to do with a still photo. A still photo is in portrait and very narrow. When you’re making a film, it’s got to be landscaped, so you have to create the left and right frame for it. There’s a lot of work going into it looking like we just found the material in a cupboard.

Tell me what you had to do to get the audio quality of AMY up to spec.

There was a lot of work done on the sound. Some of it came from VHS with really poor quality. You want to make it sound good in a theater, and all you’ve got is that one original track; you can’t go back and re-record it. I have a great team of sound people who turned this stuff into something that sounds good in a theater.

Amy’s studio recordings, especially on vinyl, are of audiophile quality to begin with, so you have to level-match things up to that standard all throughout the film to keep the sound design consistent. Well done.

Wow. Thank you. They’re really good. My dialog editor [Tony Lewis], he does Ridley Scott movies — really good films. I know him from college. We were at film school together, and we’ve done loads of films together. The sound design is brilliant. The mixer is brilliant. They’re all great.

So I come in there with this mess of material and hand it over to them, but they find it quite exciting. Weirdly enough, there’s more to do on these documentaries than there is with my fiction films. Our online editor, who did a lot of work on AMY, said it was the most complicated film he’s ever worked on.

Was there any particular sound sequence where you thought, “We’re never going to get this,” but then it worked out to your satisfaction?

Good question! There’s a [1972] Donny Hathaway song in the film that Amy sings called We’re Still Friends. This was when her boyfriend [Blake Fielder-Civil] came back into her life when she became a huge success with [2006’s] Back to Black. It’s taken from a concert at Union Chapel in London [on November 24, 2006].

Every take is unique, because she sings it in the mood that she’s in.

There were no cameras there, and hardly anybody was at that concert. Of all the concerts I’ve heard, that’s the best one. She is incredible during that show. It’s at the end of 2006, before she’s become mega-famous. That was it! Her peak of performance vocally was this tiny window from when Back to Black was created and before it came out.

But that song — I remember hearing it and loving it, and saying, “Somehow, we’ve got to get this in the movie.” That’s one of my favorite bits of audio.

Another piece of audio was from [hip-hop producer] Salaam Remi’s house in Miami, where we only hear her playing a little bit of guitar, creating a song. That’s another one of my favorites, because that literally is just her with an open mic, just messing around for 20 minutes. We only use about 30 seconds of it, but it’s great.

When I’m working at home, I’ll play that 20 minutes of Amy messing around on the guitar on her own, chatting away, and writing the song. You actually hear the song being constructed. It never got released, but part of it became Like Smoke, with Nas appearing on it, after she died. [Nas’ Like Smoke duet with Amy appears on her posthumous 2011 release, Lioness: Hidden Treasures.]

I’d say that full 20 minutes of Amy freestyling needs to be released by Universal in some kind of mondo box set. And I absolutely love the stuff she did with [producer] Mark Ronson too, especially where we see her in the booth recording the song Back to Black. After she’s done, she says, “Oh, it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?”

That’s a really good example! Somebody happened to be in Mark’s studio in New York [Chung King Studios, in March 2006], making a film about The Dap-Kings, the session musicians [who also appear on Back to Black]. Amy just happens to be there singing — and no one knows who she is! When she starts singing, the camera swings over to her, and just starts filming her. That recording of Back to Black and Valerie and all that is pure coincidence, because the person there wasn’t supposed to be filming her.

When we saw this footage, we said to Mark, “Who’s the person holding the camera? Where do we get the material? Where do we get the masters?” And he said, “I don’t even remember a camera being there!” It just ended up being pure chance. But we chased it, and ended up finding this material in a documentary that went on TV in Holland. We went to Holland and contacted people: “Where’s this material from?” We found the filmmaker in Brooklyn, the guy who shot this material [Matt Rogers]. No one’s ever seen it in full before.

A wild goose chase and good detective work is pretty much how we work. (both chuckle) That’s the process of us running around the world. “We’ve heard this material exists. Who’s got it? Who’s got the master tape?”

When Amy gets to the end of Back to Black, she’s so naturally taken aback by the nature and impact of what she just sang. It gets me every time I watch it.

It was effortless, wasn’t it? Mark said to us she did only one or two takes, and each take was perfect. There’s no editing, and there’s no post work on any of her stuff. Every take is unique, because she sings it in the mood that she’s in.

She’s like a method singer. She’s a jazz musician. She never does the same thing twice. It all depends on the vibe that she’s feeling then and there.

What’s interesting is, when I hear her perform like that, I love that every performance is unique. But when I spoke to people from the record company, they hated it. They wanted the record — they wanted the song that people were dancing to. When she did concerts, she’d always change up the lyrics. That became the problem. She was caught between being an artist and a pop star.

I love that footage near the end of the film where she’s doing the Body and Soul duet with Tony Bennett [in 2011], and she keeps saying, “I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it,” but he’s very soothing and encouraging: “We just have to work to get through this, until we get the right take. It’s OK.”

He’s amazing. He is the kind of father figure she’s been searching for. He’s so positive and so good at giving her confidence and love, saying, “You’re brilliant, you’re great.” She just needed to hear that from him, and that hug she gives him is so moving.

Then the look on her face changes, and she’s in the zone and does that one truly amazing take where the camera pans to get that look on Tony’s face where he goes, “Oh yeah.”

She was caught between being an artist and a pop star.

He mouths, “Wow, she’s amazing!” (chuckles) It’s genuine, it’s all genuine. He is such a great guy. I felt very lucky that we found that sequence, because it gives the film a closure, I guess. He pretty much gets the last line in the film: “Life teaches you, really, how to live it — if you can live long enough.”

What’s the best way to watch AMY — on Blu-ray, via streaming, or in the theater?

The truth is, I’m old school. I still think theatrical is the ultimate. You want the audiences to see the film on a big screen, and to hear it through the screen. Then if people like it, obviously, Blu-ray is the best way. The quality is better, and there’s more room on the Blu-ray to put on more extras.

Once the film’s out and it’s had a theatrical life, you just want people to see your work. I don’t mind people watching films on a plane, and I don’t mind them watching on an iPad. The worst thing ever is if you’ve spent 3 to 5 years making a film, and people have never heard of it. So, whatever it takes. If that’s what works for them, if that’s their way, then I’m cool with it.

But I am still a fan of the original way being a theatrical release with an audience, sharing in the experience and not checking your email while watching it, you know? Not being distracted, and just being in that moment. Really feel it, and then do what you want.