When Amy Winehouse, the British musician who sang memorably about her refusal to go to rehab, died due to problems related to drugs, alcohol and bulimia in July 2011, she was nearly as famous for her personal struggles as she was for her music. Just 27, Winehouse had been tabloid fodder for years.
"Amy sold newspapers. If she was on the cover of a tabloid, it sold more copies. If she was on a website, they got more hits," film director Asif Kapadia tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. It was the dawning of the digital age, with the advent of YouTube, Facebook and other popular cultural websites, and "She was the unlucky one to be having a nervous breakdown in public at the time."
Kapadia's new documentary, Amy, tries to rescue the singer from the tabloid narrative by examining who she was before she was famous — and tracing how addiction and fame transformed her. Kapadia pieces the film together using interviews with Winehouse's family and friends, as well as footage and excerpts from home videos, holiday cards and answering machines.
"One of the big revelations for me — there's lots of revelations making this film — I didn't realize how funny she was," Kapadia says. "I didn't realize she played a guitar. She had this amazing personality."
Among those interviewed in the film is Nick Shymansky, who initially discovered Winehouse when they were teenagers. He became her first manager.
Shymansky was present for the unsuccessful effort to get the singer treatment for her addictions, which resulted in the song "Rehab." In it, Winehouse sings, "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, 'No, no, no' ... I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks I'm fine..."
"That song ['Rehab'] is pretty much verbatim what happened that day," Shymansky tells Gross. "It was all lined up for her to go [to rehab], and who knows what would've happened. ... But we had it all lined up and [Winehouse's father] changed his mind and, if anything, belittled my position and also my point of view."
Winehouse never made it to rehab that day, and her song about the experience became her biggest hit — and also, maybe, her biggest miss. "Later on, people watched her singing it with a glass of wine in her hand, or a vodka, and sitting there dancing to it, but this is a cry for help in a way," Kapadia says.
On Winehouse's fear of stardom
Nick Shymansky: I suppose if I look back, in hindsight, she wasn't that ambitious to be famous, and she wasn't ambitious to make lots of money, but she was very ambitious to get in the studio with some top-level musicians. She was really excitable when it came to making music, being around music. I guess that masked, at the time, my understanding of what her ambition was, because there was motivation and there was enthusiasm, and I guess, years later, I look at it and I realize that was never directed at fame or money or the things that come with being a big star — but it wasn't so obvious, because of those other things that were going on.
On Winehouse's struggle with bulimia
Asif Kapadia: We found out that bulimia was an issue from a young age, from, like, her teens, mid-teens. ... A lot of different people ... noticed it but they didn't realize it was a big deal, or they thought it was a passing phase or nervousness, and that was a massive part of Amy's kind of illness over the years, which mixed with alcohol and, obviously, there was a period of heavy drugs. But that was really a problem for her — there was an eating disorder that continued all the way through, and really people started to notice it more and more. What I found was that lots of different people would notice it, but nobody was talking to one another. And I think that was a big revelation about the Amy story, was that the different compartments to her life, different people in different stages, that didn't meet or talk to one another — or, in certain cases, just didn't get along. And I think, therefore, Amy was able to control the situation [because] not everyone knew all of the information.
On staging an intervention to get Winehouse to rehab
Shymansky: She was in a bad place, and it had been going on for a while. I was very worried about her, it being long enough to realize that this wasn't just a phase. And so myself [and Amy's friends] Juliet and Lauren, we sort of rallied together, and it resulted in me taking her to rehab. She went to meet someone at rehab, agreed to go in on the condition that I took her to her father's house, and she got his consent and his approval. I obviously stopped, called him to kind of just make sure he was on the same page, and he agreed he was on the same page. [But] by the time we got to the house, he had changed his mind — and, if anything, went against the idea of her going to rehab.
Kapadia: Amy turned [her refusal to go to rehab] into a song, which became her biggest hit, which became the albatross around her neck. It's the song that made her famous in the U.S. It made her famous around the world.
On Mitch Winehouse's claims that the film misrepresents his stance on his daughter going to rehab
Kapadia: He's quite pedantic, I think. He's saying [that] in his interview — and we did more than one interview — he said, "I don't think Amy needed to go to rehab at the time." Now, he's saying, "You've taken out 'at the time,'" but the point was at that time he didn't think she had to go to rehab, and that's what we've got in the film, and that's what Amy says in the song.
On Winehouse's physical transformation over time
Kapadia: She is so expressive; she's not hiding anything. You can see it, she put it all out there, and when it's fun and when she's happy you see that, and when it's dark you can see she's not able to hide it. You can see — I don't think she looks happy in the place she finds herself in. ... Again, I am talking in hindsight, but a lot of what she was doing seemed like a cry for help, seemed like, "If I do this, will someone come in and stop it? No. What if I do this? ... When will somebody come and stop it?" A bit like a child saying, "If I misbehave, at one point do you tell me, 'No, there's a boundary. You cannot cross this boundary.'"
On the paparazzi's role in Winehouse's breakdown
Kapadia: The interesting thing that we should mention is that Amy was the girl with the album with that particular song "Rehab" who was famous in the U.K. when all the newspapers went digital. So suddenly there were websites. ... Facebook, YouTube, all of these other social-media things suddenly turned up, and she was the one [where] if she had a bad concert, everyone saw it around the world. So there's another reading to the film, which is about how the media changed.
On the 'machine' around Winehouse
Kapadia: There was a point when everyone around her seemed to either have a TV show or had a regular thing going on in the newspaper. ... People had deals with newspapers and tabloids, and it was like everyone else around her suddenly got a record deal — there was just this machine that was around Amy where it became about them and not about her, and she was one that was getting more and more lost.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. By the time Amy Winehouse died of problems related to drugs, alcohol and bulimia, she'd become nearly as famous for her problems as her music. She was stalked by paparazzi and was the butt of late-night jokes. The new documentary "Amy" tries to rescue her from that narrative, find who she was before she was famous, and trace how drugs and fame transformed her.
It was a brief life. She was 27 when she died in 2011. The film is told through interviews with friends, family and people she worked with in the music world. All the images we see are film and video, including cellphone video and photos that the director was able to get from the people who were close to her. We also see Winehouse performing at concerts and in the studio.
Here's an example, with Winehouse in the studio recording her "Back To Black" session with producer Mark Ronson in the control room. We hear her laying down her vocal track, and then we hear her with the music track.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMY")
AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Me and my head high and my tears dry, get on without my guy. You went back to what you knew, so far removed from all that we went through. And I tread a troubled track. My odds are stacked. I go back to black. We only said goodbye with words. I died a hundred times. You go back to her, and I go back to black. Black. Black.
Oh, it's a bit upsetting at the end, isn't it?
GROSS: My guest, Asif Kapadia, directed the documentary "Amy." He also directed the documentary "Senna." Also with us is Nick Shymansky, who discovered Amy Winehouse, became her first manager and worked with her for seven years. Shymansky is now vice president of artists and repertoire at Island Records.
Here's another clip from "Amy," recorded in her early teens when she's at the birthday party of her 14-year-old friend. Winehouse does the lead vocal on this chorus of "Happy Birthday."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMY")
LAUREN GILBERT: It's my 14th birthday evening and party.
WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Lauren, happy birthday to you.
GROSS: Welcome, Asif Kapadia and Nick Shymansky. So Asif, tell us how you managed to get that footage when Amy Winehouse was 14 years old and at her friend's birthday party.
ASIF KAPADIA: So that material came from one of Amy Winehouse's best friends, Lauren Gilbert. Lauren's family seemed to film everything, so a lot of their holidays and birthdays and parties and things like that. And Amy was in the footage all along because they were very good friends from a very young age. The process of getting the material was a very long-winded one which came from building up a relationship and trust with all of the people I spoke to making the film. And I spoke to the people originally just by doing audio interviews - getting to know people, getting to trust them, and then sitting down recording audio interviews. And once they trusted me enough and had opened up about their story and their relationship to Amy, they then started to give us personal footage - aunts' phone messages, home videos, holiday videos, photographs, you know, all sorts of little bits and pieces which we sort of pieced together to create this giant mosaic of Amy's life.
GROSS: Now, you had trouble convincing people to talk openly with you about Amy Winehouse, and I assume that's because the people who were close with her were very protective of her, especially considering how the paparazzi and the tabloids just took over so much of her life and made it so difficult for her to have a life. Nick, why did you agree to talk to Asif Kapadia about Amy Winehouse, and had you been protective about talking with her before?
NICK SHYMANSKY: Yeah, I mean I'd never spoken to anyone publicly about Amy. And the particular time I heard about rumors that this film had been commissioned and was being made, I was in a sort of bad space in my head with it all, feeling quite overprotective and a bit closed about everything. I just - I'd spent time with Lauren and Juliette, Amy's two closest friends, after Amy's death, and we all felt very much closed outside the kind of official spokespeople or the official channels for Amy. But I did know about Asif as a filmmaker, and so I felt like instead of it being relayed to him down another - you know, down the phone through someone else, I should at least meet up with him and explain why I don't think the film, you know, why I don't want to be involved and why possibly it's a bit early for the film.
GROSS: So what did you tell him when you explained why you did not want to be involved?
SHYMANSKY: Well, I just said that I felt the two biggest things for me was, one, it felt too early, which now I completely feel different about. And also, I was just very cynical about anyone being able to tell the story without glossing over some big parts of the story and possibly without being overly controlled. So, you know, I was - I think I was quite honest with Asif about that. And what I was really pleasantly surprised at from meeting Asif and getting together with him was how sort of calm and relaxed he was. There was - the whole tact felt very sensitive and nothing around Amy for the last years of her life and post her death felt at all sensitive. And then the absolute moment where I decided, you know what, I think this guy and this team are really solid, was when I went into the editing suite and I saw this timeline going 'round the editing suite with the years and months of Amy's life. And although it was kind of shocking to see something so practical put to such an emotional story - or, emotional to me - I've thought, wow, this team are really dedicated to trying to get this right and trying to have a look into who's who and what's what and what happened. And I guess from that moment on, I thought, you know what? No one's put the time into Amy, no one of any intellect has really got stuck into this story. This is probably the right - if I'm ever going to do this, it's probably now and it's probably with this guy, Asif.
GROSS: I think it's interesting that you just said no one of any intellect has gotten into her story. You felt her story had been told mostly by tabloids?
SHYMANSKY: Absolutely. I mean, I think the picture of Amy through the media in the U.K. towards the end of her life was really bad. I wasn't seeing the Amy that I knew for the last few years.
GROSS: Can you tell us how you first met Amy Winehouse and became her manager?
SHYMANSKY: Sure. I was a young office junior doing sort of, you know, the mundane jobs in the music business - stickering CDs, delivering records to radio stations - and I had an epiphany that the only way you're going to really get taken seriously is by finding some talent. And so I went. And I went to Sylvia Young's Theatre School, and she introduced me to Tyler James, who was a young singer, a young artist, and I started to manage him. And after a couple of weeks of managing him, we got talking about music, about jazz, about Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell. And he said, actually, if you're into this music, I have a friend that's incredible but she doesn't seem to want to focus on having a career at the moment. And that was the first I'd ever heard of Amy. And then I phoned her out of the blue - I hadn't heard her voice before. She was kind of disinterested. And then a couple of weeks later, I got a demo through the post, covered in lots of scribbles of Amy's name, and hearts and stickers, you know, and it was a very noteworthy package.
GROSS: We're talking about the new documentary, "Amy," about the late Amy Winehouse, with Asif Kapadia, who directed the film, and Nick Shymansky, who was Winehouse's first manager and is interviewed in the film. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the new documentary, "Amy," about the late singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse. My guests are Asif Kapadia, the director of the film, and Nick Shymansky, who was Winehouse's first manager and worked with her for seven years.
I want to play something that's in the movie "Amy," from early in her career. And this is her singing a song that she ends up doing on her first album, or perhaps she's singing this after the first album was released - you can help me with the chronology. And the song is called "Stronger Than Me." This is her singing this at a club. Where does this performance come from? Who recorded it and where?
SHYMANSKY: This is one of the first - this was the first run of promotional activity. We got invited to the club, and it was televised. So it was very early on in her promoting the first album.
KAPADIA: You just see her with a guitar - I mean, one of the big revelations for me - there's lots of revelations making this film. I didn't realize how funny she was. I didn't realize she played a guitar. I didn't realize, you know, she had this amazing personality. So from very early on, this footage, it's very simple. It's just in a club. There's lots of voices, and people are chatting in the background. Amy with a guitar is electric, you know, she's just amazing. And you just see the talent, the rawness of it all. And this clip really shows you. It's very early on in her career. People don't know who she is. But at work - in kind of certain circles, people are hearing about this girl's voice and her talent. And I think that kind of sums it up, really.
GROSS: So this is Amy Winehouse around 2003?
SHYMANSKY: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: OK. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMY")
WINEHOUSE: (Singing) You should be stronger than me. You've been here seven years longer than me. Don't you know you're supposed to be the man, not pale in comparison to who you think I am? You always want to talk it through. I don't care. I always have to comfort you when I'm there. But that's what I need you to do, stroke my hair, yeah. Now I've forgotten all of young love's joy, feel like a lady, and you're my lady boy. You should be stronger than me.
GROSS: So that's some footage from the new documentary "Amy." That was Amy Winehouse singing at a club in 2003. My guests are Asif Kapadia, who directed the movie, and Nick Shymansky, who was Amy Winehouse's first manager and is one of the main interviewees in the movie.
So many of her songs were autobiographical. Does that song, "Stronger Than Me," tell a story about a boy in her life - a man in her life?
SHYMANSKY: Yeah, I mean, that was - she was writing that - that song was written in Miami just after she - in fact, I think she may have been going out with the guy at the time she wrote the song. But it's - it was a guy that she pursued for quite a long time that I don't think was very interested in her. And then she finally won him over, and it went the other way. He was extremely interested in her, and she started to lose interest in him. That's a song that came after she'd written some really warm songs towards the guy as well. So it really captures both sides of her personality - her sort of tender side, but also her more witty side.
GROSS: And it sounds like - I mean, you say Nick, in the movie, that - well, you make it seem like she was always an interesting, but kind of difficult person. You say she could make you feel so important, then unimportant, then make you feel important again. You say she used to like to get people in an uncomfortable position and then shock them. Is there an example of that that comes to mind?
SHYMANSKY: I guess if Amy thought you were being complacent - if Amy thought that maybe you thought you - you know, she really liked you or that the trust was there, she'd always do something to keep you on your toes. I guess that's what I meant by that statement. She was challenging in the way that she was very, very smart and the fact that she didn't necessarily have the most conventional view on what was important, you know? Doing a meeting with a record company wasn't that important to Amy, but that's quite an important part of the process of getting funding. So that was a challenge because I'd have to be creative in making those scenarios something that she would be interested in. And that would very often be about doing it around good food or setting up a meeting in a studio where there's lots of great instruments. And - but it was - at the same time, it was really - I was finding that challenge exciting because I knew that I couldn't just - you know, I knew I couldn't just put in some mundane, standard meeting. I'd have to think of a way of making it something she'd want to do.
GROSS: Let's hear another Amy Winehouse song. And this is from her first album, "Frank." This song is called "What Is It About Men." Again, is this - is this an autobiographical song, would you say?
SHYMANSKY: Everything she said about it post-releasing it, I think is absolutely true. And she talks about it as though it was an autobiographical song, so it is. But to be honest, it was more advanced than both. At the time, when I first heard it, before all the journalists had heard it and written about it, before the public heard it, I didn't - I couldn't gauge with it on the level that it was. I was - what would I have been, 22, 23 when I first heard this song? You know, I thought she was writing about guys. I didn't realize the depth of what she was saying at the time.
GROSS: So tell us what this means to you now.
SHYMANSKY: Well, now, you know, the way she described it so eloquently after releasing the song is it's about her inner demons and the - as she says in the song, I think - her Freudian way - you know, her connection to her father, sort of learning how to love and how to start sexual relationships by seeing how her father did. And that's not me saying that. That's what she's said on record quite a few times, which is a really deep and interesting angle for an 18-year-old to come up with.
GROSS: And her father had, like, an eight or nine-year affair with another woman while he was married to Amy's mother, and then he finally came out about it. So that's part of, I suppose, what she's referring to in this. So let's hear it. This is from Amy Winehouse's first album, "Frank."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS IT ABOUT MEN")
WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I'm nurturing. I just want to do my thing, and I'll take the wrong man as naturally as I sing. And I'll save my tears for uncovering my fears, our behavioral patterns that stick over the years because it's bricked up in my head. It's shoved under my bed, and I question myself again - what is it about men? Now, my destructive side has grown a mile wide, and I question myself again - what is it about men? Oh, it's bricked up in my head, and it's stuffed under my bed, and I question myself again - what is it about men?
GROSS: That's Amy Winehouse singing her song, "What Is It About Men" from her first album, released in 2003, called "Frank." And with me are Nick Shymansky who was her first manager and Asif Kapadia who is the director of the new documentary, "Amy," about Amy Winehouse. And Nick is one of the people interviewed in that documentary.
Many young performers are driven to become stars, but my impression from the documentary about Amy Winehouse is that she was almost afraid of stardom, that she thought it would hurt her, and, in fact, it did. So, Nick, when you knew her, when she was first starting in her career and you were managing her, what were your impressions of what she wanted out of her career?
SHYMANSKY: For me, I was so sort of excited to find someone of that talent. And there was, quite quickly, a really strong chemistry between her and I. And I just - I realized that she - you know, with Amy, it was about finding the things that would make her feel focused. So early on, you know, I suppose, if I look back in hindsight, you know, she wasn't that ambitious to be famous, and she wasn't ambitious to make lots of money. But she was very ambitious to get in the studio with some, you know, top level musicians. She was really excitable when it came to making music, being around music. So I guess that masked, at the time, my understanding of what her ambition was because there was motivation, and there was enthusiasm. And I guess, years later, I look at it, and I realize that was never directed at fame or money or the things that come with being a big star. But it wasn't so obvious because of those other things that were going on.
GROSS: My guests are Asif Kapadia who directed the new documentary, "Amy," about Amy Winehouse and Nick Shymansky who discovered her and managed her for seven years. We'll talk about how her life was transformed by drugs, alcohol and bulimia and about being the target of paparazzi and the punchline of jokes, after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the new documentary, "Amy," about the late British singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse. She died in 2011 of problems related to alcohol and bulimia. She was 27. The documentary tries to rescue her story from the tabloids. My guests are Asif Kapadia, the director of the film, and Nick Shymansky, who discovered Winehouse and worked as her manager for seven years. He's interviewed in the film. Winehouse's first album, "Frank," was released in 2003. "Back To Black" was released in 2006.
Her most famous song, at least in the U.S., is "Rehab." And, Nick, you're a part of that story. You wanted to take her to rehab. In fact, you performed an intervention with her. Would you just tell us that story?
SHYMANSKY: She was in a bad place, and it had been going on for a while. I was very worried about her. It'd been long enough to realize that this wasn't just a phase, so myself, Julia and Lauren - we sort of rallied together, and it resulted in me taking her to rehab. She went to meet someone at rehab, agreed to go in on the condition that I took her to her father's house and she got his consent and his approval. I obviously stopped, called him to kind of just make sure he was on the same page. He agreed he was on the same page. By the time we got to the house, that had - you know, he had changed his mind and sort of, if anything, went against the idea of her going to rehab.
GROSS: And so the line in the song - I ain't got the time, and if my daddy says, I'm fine - that leads to, I won't go. So that's like a factual reference that her father said she didn't need to go to rehab.
SHYMANSKY: That song is pretty much verbatim what happened that day. I mean, it was all lined up for her to go, and who knows what would've happened - whether it would have worked or not. I don't know. But we had it all lined up, and he changed his mind and, if anything, belittled my position and also my point of view - made out as though I was massively overreacting which was a terrible message to give to her, as well, I felt at the time.
GROSS: Asif, Amy Winehouse's father, Mitch Winehouse, objects to how he's portrayed in this part of the movie, and he thinks that his full statement was edited in such a way that - so that the full intent of what he's saying isn't represented. Do you want to address that?
KAPADIA: Well, I think he said, at the time, I don't think she needs to go to rehab. He is saying - he's quite pedantic. I think he's saying in his interview - and we did more than one interview - he said, I don't think Amy needed to go to rehab at the time. Now he's saying, you've taken out at the time, but the point was at that time he didn't think she needed to go to rehab. And that's what we've got in the film, and that's what Amy says in the song. I mean, what you've just been talking to Nick about is actually a kind of interesting part of the creation of this film. I was meeting people and talking to them, and while talking to them, it dawned on me - oh, my God, Nick, you're talking about something I've heard of. I know this song. And then you realize, actually, that real incident, Amy turned into a song which became her biggest hit, which became the albatross around her neck. It's the song that made her famous in the U.S. It made her famous around the world, and then later on, people watched her singing it with a glass of wine in her hand or, you know, a vodka. And you're sitting there, dancing to it, but this is a cry for help, in a way. This is her sort of trying to have a dig - or in hip-hop terminology, she's dissing Nick, in a way. People try to help her - she turned it into a song, and I kind of find it slightly - it doesn't matter whatever was said at the time or not. Her father didn't think she needed to go. That's why she didn't go.
GROSS: So why don't we hear Amy Winehouse singing "Rehab" from her 2007 album, "Back To Black."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")
WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no. Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know. I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks, I'm fine. He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go, go, go. I'd rather be at home with Ray. I ain't got 70 days' cause there's nothing, there's nothing you can teach me that I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway. I didn't get a lot in class, but I know it don't come in a shot glass.
GROSS: That the big Amy Winehouse hit, "Rehab," recorded in 2007, and my guests are the director of the new documentary about her, Asif Kapadia - the documentary is called "Amy" - and Nick Shymansky, who was her first manager - he managed her for seven years, and that relationship as manager and musician ended just before the release of the album "Back To Black." So, Nick, what was it like for you hearing that song, knowing, like, yeah, you're the guy who really tried to get her into rehab, and her father did say she didn't need that at the time? And now she has a song about it, and the song sounds kind of funny, in a way - like, no, I don't have to go.
SHYMANSKY: Well, it was a very frustrating time 'cause I could hear what a powerful hit song it was. I knew it was a song that would travel. At the same time, I was slightly embarrassed because it was making a mockery out of me and what I stood for. But the biggest feeling was of sadness and frustration because I knew she did need to go, and I knew that by the time the actual record was coming out she was in a worse place, and by the time everyone knew the song, she was in an even worse place. There's a lyric, it's not just my pride, which really resonated with me because, you know, my pride was in a bad place 'cause someone that I had this big dream for was sort of going into the dream, and I was no longer a part of it. And I could see it turning into a nightmare pretty quickly.
GROSS: Asif, there's a story in your documentary "Amy" about her being in the studio, recording the songs for her album "Back To Black" when she's drinking in the studio and she also has this, like, huge plate of food that she finishes, plus a desert and then goes into the bathroom and one of the women discovers that she threw everything up because she was bulimic. But no one really understood that at the time. So even though the people who were recording her at the time thought maybe that she was sober, she still had very serious troubling issues going on in the studio.
KAPADIA: We found out that, you know, bulimia was an issue from a young age - from, like, her teens - mid-teens. And I think that's what came out. A lot of different people had mentioned that they'd noticed it, but they didn't realize it was a big deal or they thought it was a passing phase or, you know, nervousness. And that was a massive part of Amy's kind of illness over the years which mixed with alcohol and obviously there was a period of heavy drugs. But that was really a problem for her. She - there was an eating disorder that continued all the way through, and, really, people started to notice it more and more. But what I found was that lots of different people would notice it, but nobody was talking to one another. And I think that was a big revelation about the kind of Amy story, was that there are different compartments to her life - different people in different stages that didn't meet or talk to one another or, in some cases, just didn't get along. And I think, therefore, Amy was able to control the situation by - not everyone knew all of the information.
GROSS: Well, you know, her mother - Amy Winehouse's mother even tells you when you're interviewing her that Amy had come to her when she was in her, I think early teens, and said I have this great way of dieting. I just, like, eat whatever I want and then I just kind of bring it up. And her mother tells you that she didn't think much of it at the time. She thought, oh, she's a teenager, it's a passing phase. It'll go away, no big deal.
KAPADIA: Yeah, I mean that's one of the sadder things - when you hear her mother talking who - you know, she's very sweet, Janice - but she's - you know, she's talked about how, even when Amy was very young, Amy would ask her mother to be tougher on her, be stronger with me, you know, I need some - I need a bit of more kind of guidance. And Amy's mother wasn't always able to be like that. It doesn't come naturally to her. So I think - yeah, she mentioned it. That's - that was, again, another thing where you realize that from from 15, 16, she had mentioned it to her parents, and they didn't know how to handle it.
GROSS: We're talking about the new documentary, "Amy," about the late Amy Winehouse with Asif Kapadia, who directed the film and Nick Shymansky, who was Winehouse's first manager and is interviewed in the movie. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the new documentary "Amy" about the late singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse. My guests are Asif Kapadia, the director of the film, and Nick Shymansky who was Winehouse's first manager and worked with her for seven years.
Asif, when you were putting together the documentary and sorting through all the interviews with people who knew her and sorting through all of the video and film that had been shot of her, what were some of the things you could - you could just kind of visually see about how she started changing after she became a star?
KAPADIA: So, I mean, the nature of the film is it's made entirely out of archive. And so what we do is we just show Amy's face throughout. You know, you have voices. I've done lots of - over a hundred interviews where I spoke to people, but you just hear their voices. The image is essentially Amy, and you see her from very young all the way through. And it's these amazing eyes that she has when she's younger during the "Frank" period. And, you know, the bright eyes and her face and she's healthy and, you know, you just see gradually the makeup changing. You see gradually the hair gets longer. You see gradually the kind of - the beehive appears. And really that's what happens during the film, is you - she's so expressive. You see her body changing. You see her getting thinner and thinner and thinner until the point where she's really thin at times. And I think that that's the kind of the technical style of the film, is that at times we just hold on a still image and you hear a story. And her face tells you everything.
GROSS: And you see her eyes dull. You mentioned her big, beautiful, alive eyes. During her real drug periods, you just see them go a little blank and dull.
KAPADIA: I mean, you can see it, literally.
KAPADIA: Yeah, I mean, it's - she is so expressive. She's not hiding anything. You can see it. She put it all out there. And when it's fun, and when she's happy, you see that. And when it's dark, you can see she's not able to hide it. You can see she's - I don't think she looks happy in the place she finds herself in. And, for me, a lot of the time it's - you know, again, I am talking in hindsight. But a lot of what she was doing seemed like a cry for help. It seemed like, if I do this, will someone come in and stop it? What if I do this? What If I do this? When will somebody come in and stop it? A bit like a child saying, you know, if I misbehave, at what point do you tell me, no, there's a boundary. You cannot cross this boundary.
GROSS: You have so much footage, not only from people who knew her and videos and cell phone videos from people who knew her, you also have a lot of still photographs and film from paparazzi. You have photographs that magazine photographers took of her. There's a magazine photograph I want to ask you about that was shot for Spin Magazine by - shot by the photographer Terry Richardson. And in one of the photos, she's posing with a sharp shard of glass, with the sharp cutting edge on her exposed stomach 'cause she's wearing...
KAPADIA: It's a broken mirror.
GROSS: It's a broken mirror? I thought it was just a shard of glass. And she's wearing what looks like either a bra or the top of a bathing suit and jeans that are below her navel, so a lot of her upper body is exposed. And I just found that a very disturbing photograph, considering that her boyfriend of the time, Blake, really was a cutter. I don't know if she had cutting issues herself, but she was obviously...
KAPADIA: She did.
GROSS: She did have cutting issues?
KAPADIA: I think, at that point, when she was with him, she also started. She says it herself - she would do whatever he would do. And I know a few people who spoke to me who then noticed that Amy started cutting herself, yeah.
GROSS: I found that disturbing, kind of like exploiting her demons for an attractive, posed shot. I mean, attractive - I mean an eye-catching shot. And I'm wondering, as a documentary filmmaker who is, it seems to me, trying hard to be neutral in the telling of the story and use different point of views, what was your reaction to that photograph?
KAPADIA: So we have video in the film from that shoot. Within that sequence, there is a broken mirror. She picks up a shard and she's writing Blake's name on her tummy, as she says. That sequence is actually filmed by Blake. And it just shows you how edgy it gets. It all becomes a bit "Sid and Nancy." It all becomes, like, you know, is this part of what you're supposed to do if you're a pop star, a rock star? And, you know, there's always the drugs, and everyone knows what's going on. You know, you're on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. You're on Spin magazine's cover. Suddenly, you're famous. This is what you all dream about, isn't it? But actually, underneath it, it's dark. It's edgy. There's a real kid who's got issues and problems. And so, I mean, I'm interested that you mentioned that, because that's quite an edgy sequence in the film, and you do feel uncomfortable watching it. There's a particular shot in the film where Blake's filming, and Amy and Blake are walking, and she looks up at him.
And, for me, there is a look that she gives of a woman madly, obsessively in love with someone. You can't fake that look. She is so crazy about this guy. And we learn, you know, she will do whatever he does. And that's the point when it seems like, you know, they just - he was pushing it. He suddenly had access to money - you know, there was a lifestyle that he probably had dreamt about and he had access to via her, and they just went for it. And around her, the team - nobody was stopping it because this is what rock 'n roll is meant to be, isn't it?
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the paparazzi. She was the target of paparazzi. And the sicker that she got, the more drug problems that she had, the more people wanted to photograph her in any kind of compromised situation. And so you have shots from multiple points of view. It seems to me you probably got footage and still photographs from different paparazzi of the same moment in her life, of that same street that she was walking down or door she was coming out of. You have points of view from several different photographers. Why did you want to do that, and how did you get the photographs and footage from the paparazzi?
KAPADIA: I lived half-a-mile away from Amy's front door. I knew that area very well. And, you know, there's this crazy life that she led where she'd walk out of her door to get to a taxicab - she'd have to pass by 50, 60 men, you know, with these cameras, flashing photographs at her. And she's a tiny, petite girl, and it just seemed nuts that this was normal. This became normal. So I felt we had to deal with that and show that.
GROSS: Was it hard to get paparazzi to agree to hand over their photographs and footage?
KAPADIA: I think the way this works is, once you start talking to people, if they still exist - I mean, a lot of a paparazzi take a picture, it gets sent out, it gets used by newspaper, and then they delete it. So a lot of material has been lost. I mean, the interesting thing that we should mention is Amy was the girl with the album, with that particular song, "Rehab," who was famous when, in the UK, all the newspapers went digital. So suddenly there were websites. Suddenly, you know, all of those kind of pop culture websites or, you know, the glamour ones - they're the ones that are the most popular. People want photos. Amy sold newspapers. If she was on the cover of a tabloid, it sold more copies. If she was on a website, they got more hits. Facebook, YouTube, all of these other social media things suddenly turned up. And she was the one who, if she had a bad concert, everyone saw it around the world.
So there's another reading to the film, which is about how the media changed. And she was the unlucky one to be having a nervous breakdown in public at the time. Even going back to the Spin shoot, as you were talking about, she - more and more, she'd walk around hardly wearing any clothes. Somehow that became normal that this grown woman's walking around in her underwear in the street, and nobody seems to be kind of saying, this is not good. This is not normal. That's not healthy behavior. And so we have to - I felt we had to deal with that because the story becomes - for me, as a Londoner, it becomes a film about London, about North London, about the people who were viewing all of this stuff and laughing at her or, you know, the comedians making fun and the audience kind of thinking it's hilarious that this girl with mental illness is acting in a very peculiar way.
GROSS: At some point in Amy Winehouse's career, she becomes the target of jokes. And this is when she's in and out of rehab, when she's canceling tours. She's showing up on stage unable to perform, unwilling to perform. She's the target of jokes by the late-night comics in America and in England as well. Even when she is nominated for a Grammy and wins, the presenter is making a joke about her. And, Nick, I'm wondering what that was like for you - watching somebody who I'm sure you still cared deeply about and were very concerned about - to see her story just kind of, you know, mocked - to see her being just, like, an easy joke for people.
SHYMANSKY: Well, it was a very frustrating and sad thing to see because it was no joke to me or the people that really knew what Amy was and who Amy was. So, you know, unfortunately, you know, I think one of the best things and best reasons this film was made is because most people think that was Amy - that moment in time that's ridiculed and, you know, bad photography and seeing her in a bad way. If you knew Amy from the first album, but even go back further to before the albums, it was nothing to joke about.
GROSS: We're talking about the new documentary "Amy" about the late Amy Winehouse with Asif Kapadia who directed the film and Nick Skymansky who was Winehouse's first manager and is interviewed in the film. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the new documentary "Amy" about the late singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse. My guests are Asif Kapadia, the director of the film, and Nick Shymansky who was Winehouse's first manager and worked with her for seven years.
There's a sequence in your documentary, "Amy," about Amy Winehouse, where she's trying to get away from things and recover. She's on the island of Saint Lucia, which is, you know, pretty isolated from the paparazzi and from all the destructive qualities of fame. While she's on that island, her father, Mitch Winehouse, comes down with a camera crew because he's shooting a reality show at the time called "My Daughter Amy." And this is 2009. So he brings a camera crew down. He's attracting a lot of attention. And, you know, watching this, you know, certainly I couldn't help but feel like that's really not what she needs right, is a camera crew. She's trying to get away from that stuff. And, you know, my take on it - and I'm sure a lot of people share this take - is that he's being pretty insensitive to what she needs, which is not his reality show. And, Asif, I'm wondering, as a documentary filmmaker - I know you make other films as well - but as somebody who's made two acclaimed documentaries, what is your reaction to reality shows, including Mitch Winehouse's reality show, and how it kind of changes reality?
KAPADIA: I think this is - this is just a hint as to how much was going on around Amy. I mean, there was a point when everyone around her seemed to either have a TV show or had a regular thing going on in the newspaper. Whether it was above board or kind of quietly, people had deals with newspapers and tabloids. And there were - you know, it was just like everyone else around her suddenly got a record deal or, you know, there was just this machine that was around Amy where people - it became about them and not about her. And she was the one that was getting more and more lost. People around her got confused, I think, by the whole fame thing and stopped making big decisions, tough decisions which would have helped Amy.
GROSS: Nick, Amy was supposed to come to your wedding, and she died the day before your wedding. I guess I'm wondering how close you were to her then, you know?
SHYMANSKY: I mean, I...
SHYMANSKY: ...I always adored Amy. And, you know, I had a real soft spot for her from the first time I met her. I had a blind belief that she was the best. I spoke to her, you know, a few months before she passed, and she made it really clear she'd really like to be at my wedding, which I was pleasantly surprised at. And so I said, of course, you know, it goes without saying you're welcome to my wedding. And I'd heard from her two or three times and I'd heard from people around her, you know, that she was really excited about my wedding. And I had a lot of people due to be at the wedding or at the wedding that knew Amy well and that had known Amy for a long time. And so you can imagine, the day before my wedding- you know, it was one of the happiest weekends of my life. To get probably some of saddest news I've ever received in my life was a - you know, it couldn't have been worse.
GROSS: Asif, I'm wondering - like, I know you knew Amy's music - Amy Winehouse's music but not all that well when you started the documentary. By the time you were done with the documentary, what did her music mean to you, and what did you hear in it that you hadn't noticed before?
KAPADIA: I guess the lyrics, really. Everyone talked about Amy's voice, and I knew her voice. But it was the - the lyric quality, I think, is amazing. The way she puts in these references, the way she uses humor and her intelligence, but they're also very simple. Everyone can understand them. The honesty, I suppose, she puts in there - I think that was a big level. I also - through meeting Nick and seeing performances that he shot and other people have shot, I just love seeing her live, you know? I love the quality of her picking up a guitar. One minute she's in the loo, and she's doing her hair and her makeup and joking around. Next minute, she picks up a guitar, walks up on stage and blows you away with her voice and the songs. And I think the personality, the rawness that comes across in her performance, in the early days, particularly, I love. And I think there's just something about the way she plays the guitar.
She's just - everything is kind of quirky and unique, and there's this jazz, hip-hop quality mixed in with everything. I love that. That's what turned me into a huge fan. I - you know, I know the records are huge and massively successful, but for me, the records - her voice wasn't quite coming through enough for me, you know? Whereas when you see her live, I get it. I see it. And so that changed everything for me. I'm now a massive fan. Also, as a Londoner, I'm very proud of her. You know, there's something about this story that, to me, is - this is my London film. And there's something about her being the girl next door who came through, who used her personality and her intelligence to create something that has gone everywhere around the world. And I think - I hope that comes across in the film as well because she's one of us, you know? Everyone I know who's seen the film in London feels linked to Amy somehow.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you. Nick Shymansky and Asif Kapadia, thank you so much.
SHYMANSKY: Thank you.
KAPADIA: Thank you.
GROSS: Asif Kapadia directed the new documentary, "Amy." Nick Shymansky, who was interviewed in the film, was Amy Winehouse's first manager and worked with her for seven years. He's now a vice president at Island Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS A LOSING GAME")
WINEHOUSE: (Singing) For you, I was a flame. Love is a losing game. Five story fire as you came. Love is a losing game, one I wish I never played. Oh, what a mess we made. And now the final frame. Love is a losing game.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Supreme Court marriage equality decision with Mary Bonauto, one of the attorneys who argued before the Supreme Court and who helped devise the state-based strategy that led to the overturning of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. Also with us will be Evan Wolfson, one of the architects of the marriage equality movement. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.