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How Amy Winehouse Documentary Filmmakers Offset Bleak, Tragic Reality

Grammy winner’s lyrics and early years provide the balance in ”Amy,“ which A24 rolls out in six theaters Friday

One of the challenges for the filmmakers behind “Amy,” the documentary about the life and tragic death of soul diva Amy Winehouse, was keeping the move from being too harrowing.

It’s hard to imagine a more bitter irony than the six-time Grammy winner singing “No, no, no” in her biggest hit “Rehab,” and then dying of alcohol poisoning at age 27.

“You have to be careful about that tipping point whereby it becomes self-defeating and actually people can’t enjoy the film,” said James Gay-Rees, who produced “Amy,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and debuts in six theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It’s the first documentary release for distributor A24, which plans to expand into the top 50 markets nationwide next weekend.

“We definitely had earlier versions of the movie where we were showing what a lovely, bright creature she was, but then you went into an hour-and-a-half of hardcore misery,” he said. “Then it becomes like a trial. People could have justifiably said, ‘What is the point of this?’ So we had to be very careful in finding that balance.”

They did, if you believe the critics, who have the documentary directed by Asif Kapadia and edited by Chris King at 100 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes after 42 reviews. The filmmaking trio had teamed earlier on award-winning 2010 documentary “Senna,” which charted the story of acclaimed Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Winehouse, who grew up as director Kapadia did in North London, experienced a meteoric rise to fame she had never sought nor expected. The relentless media attention, coupled with her troubled relationships and addictions, led to a painfully well-documented downward spiral.

Kapadia and his team decided they’d look hard at her less-chronicled, brighter early years, through interviews with her family and closest friends. They secured the cooperation of her father, Mitch Winehouse, the Amy Winehouse Foundation and Raye Cosbert, who managed Winehouse for Metropolis Music. But Winehouse’s closest friends had taken a vow of silence.

“Right after her funeral,” says Gay-Rees, “they said ‘Let’s just keep it in-house and never share this with anybody.'”

It took more than a year, but they finally won the cooperation of those closest to her. They carried a lot of guilt and baggage surrounding her final years, which is presented in unflinching manner. Her father has since disassociated himself from the project and has said he believes his portrayal is unfair.

Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, Winehouse’s oldest and closest friends, provided context Gay-Rees said.

“She was just like them. Amy was just a suburban, Jewish kid from North London who became this phenomenon, and by having these two friends as a fairly constant presence in the movie reminds you of
where she came from. Amy was not a Justin Bieber. She wasn’t a Disney kid,” he said.

But their recollections didn’t paint a clear enough picture, so the filmmakers decided to tell the story through her music, which she wrote, and her lyrics, which are presented on the screen throughout the movie.

“Everyone knew she could sing, but maybe people didn’t realize how well she could write,” said Gay-Rees said.  “The whole thing was her,” he said.

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