With Amy, the illuminating new documentary about neo-soul chanteuse Amy Winehouse arriving in theaters Friday, director Asif Kapadia set himself an outwardly selfless aim: to undo some of the damage caused by years of sensational tabloid coverage of the singer’s self-destructive bent with a competing narrative. Amy countervails the image of Winehouse that has lingered in the public imagination since her 2012 death at age 27 of alcohol poisoning by tracing the artistry, cheekiness and deep emotion that brought the “Rehab” singer to superstardom in the first place.
“She was a really strong woman, this amazing personality who had an awful reputation and whose humanity got lost along the way,” says Kapadia. “The film became a journey of ‘Let’s show who she really was, how amazing she was.’ It became a mission to make a film that does right by her.”
But in the months since Amy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a string of “the Oscar race starts here”-type of reviews, Winehouse’s family has lambasted the movie for what they describe as gross inaccuracies, issuing a statement claiming Amy “is both misleading and contains some basic untruths.”
Moreover, Reg Traviss, Winehouse’s boyfriend at the time of her death — who only appears in Amy in a photo montage — claims Kapadia manipulated the material to serve his personal thesis rather than reflect larger truths about the singer. And by doing so, Traviss feels Kapadia shirked his responsibilities as a biographer as well as a documentarian. Traviss, who is a writer-director in his own right (his crime-thriller Anti-Social was released in the U.K. in May), elaborated on his problems with Amy in an exclusive e-mail interview with EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your reflections of Amy are not featured in the film. But from what I have read, you were extensively interviewed for it. Is that correct?
REG TRAVISS: Yes my interviews are not featured, but it would also seem that the insight into Amy as a person and my explanations of certain events which took place such as the circumstances of her show in Belgrade—which I afforded to the documentary makers—were disregarded, whereas even without the inclusion of my audio-interview the documentary makers could have still drawn upon what I had given them in their overall depiction.
How in particular do you feel Asif Kapadia mischaracterized Amy?
I feel that she was mischaracterized in many ways but generally I feel that Asif wanted the documentary to follow a familiar, seen-before-and-expected narrative — that of the Sid and Nancy type of rise-success-shambolic fall — and so in order to make that narrative fit with Amy’s life he had to censor and in some instances completely omit parts of her life, relationships, and even her character. The sheer existence, let alone inclusion in the documentary, of these key areas of Amy’s life completely contradict the narrative he wanted to craft, and so he whitewashed anything which opposed his story, and in doing so he mischaracterized Amy as consequence. I can speak with certainty of what became the last two years of Amy’s life, and the way in which the footage of her has been edited in the documentary is just not how or who she was.
Asif is a documentary maker, he is not a film director making a drama with creative licence in regards to the story, and this is an important distinction; he uses real life archive footage and edits it into an order alongside audio-interviews—he was effectively Amy’s biographer with a professional responsibility to produce a truthful depiction of her and her life, but he manipulated his material beyond what is acceptable for the medium of a documentary biopic. The censorship, distortions and omissions he sanctioned meant that whilst he could craft his desired narrative the natural by-product was a misrepresentation of Amy herself.
What about how she was presented has been “fictionalized” and “distorted” as you have previously claimed?
There are many key things, such as the portrayal of how she performed with Tony Bennett at Abbey Road; in the documentary only a short clip of footage is used and the clip gives the impression that Amy was either unable or unwilling to perform in a professional manner alongside Bennett. This was not the case at all in real life and in my opinion is a slur upon her. It was clear that Asif had specifically chosen a moment of footage which would give this negative impression — to support his narrative — instead of using any of the rest of the footage which would have showed the reality of the session and of Amy as a great artist alongside another great artist. In addition the documentary never refers to the success of that duet and its recording. There is an overall depiction of Amy as a performer during the 2010 to 2011 period presenting her as a singer who no longer performs and either has no interest or perhaps no ability to perform during what became her last years; but she did an acclaimed tour of Brazil, she played a concert in Dubai, she played in London, she played in Belgrade, and did many impromptu appearances in various music venues during this time — all were praised except Belgrade — and Amy performed these shows because she loved music and because she was in control of herself. However, the documentary chose only to depict the ill-fated Belgrade show, without any mention or even reference to any of the acclaimed shows which preceded it. It was a totally distorted representation of Amy as a performer and a fictionalised account of her life at this time.
Amy had a very close and very warm relationship with her father; they were like both father and daughter and like best friends, but the documentary goes out of its way to portray their relationship as hollow and problematic, which was a plainly distorted and spun depiction for the benefit of the documentary’s narrative. Amy had a close group of friends at this time who shared her life day in day out; but the existence of her friends was erased in the documentary and she was instead depicted as somebody who spent her final years alone, which again was a fictionalised portrayal of her and of how she lived.