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A life in music 

Opening today in Rochester, filmmaker Asif Kapadia's powerful new documentary, "Amy," chronicles the tragically short life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, "Amy" has received wide acclaim (including in the pages of City Newspaper), but has also comes with its share of controversy, as members of Amy Winehouse's family have spoken out against their portrayal in the film.

Told entirely through archival and home video footage, as well as audio interviews with those closest to the singer, the film is a devastating and strikingly intimate portrait of a troubled young woman whose enormous talent wasn't enough to shield her against the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

City recently spoke with the film's producer, James Gay-Rees, by phone for a brief interview. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

How did you come to be involved in producing "Amy"? Were you a fan of Amy Winehouse's music going in?

I kind of was a fan, but I slightly missed the boat. I think I was living in the States when she first popped up, so I sort of appreciated her from afar. But I was approached by her label and her management and her family to make this movie, because they'd seen a previous movie we'd made called "Senna," about the Brazilian racing driver.

The label is run by a guy called David Joseph, in the U.K. He's a friend of mine and he was very supportive of "Senna," and he texted me out of the blue one day about three or four years ago, just saying, "Would you ever consider making a movie of the vein of 'Senna' about Amy Winehouse?" And I instantaneously -- I don't even know why I did it -- said "Yup, I'm in," and so we sat down with everybody and got the ball rolling.

You previously collaborated with Asif Kapadia on "Senna." How did already being familiar with one another translate to your working relationship during this film?

It was good. We pretty much pulled through the entire team, from the same editor as "Senna," the researcher's the same, the production manager's the same. So really, we'd all worked with each other before and obviously had a great experience on it and so it was like getting the band back together again, really.

"Senna" was the first documentary we made, so it took us a long time, but we hit the ground running with this one and we've all had a great time. It's been a very, very, challenging, difficult movie to make, but we're all really pleased with the outcome.

"Amy" shares a similar style as "Senna," in that it forgoes traditional talking-head interviews to use only archival and home video footage. Was there ever any discussion about doing this film any other way?

No, not really. And the problem with making talking-head movies about people who are dead is that they can't be interviewed. So we didn't want to be in a situation where everybody was interviewed apart from Amy, because that leaves a big hole in the middle of the movie. So what we try and do is keep it real time almost, so you meet the people at the beginning and they take you through the journey.

We try not to break the spell by cutting to talking heads -- or cutting to anything, really -- or having it in voiceover. It's really her and the people who were on the journey telling you the story as it unfolds. And so you're sort of steered through it, at that time.

How did you go about securing all the footage used for the film?

It was difficult, actually, because there's lots of footage out there, but there's lots of crap -- paparazzi footage or whatever. But what we wanted was home movies and behind-the-scenes stuff, and the great stuff that no one's ever seen before.

Her people were very reluctant to talk, to be honest. A lot of people didn't want to participate. And it was a challenge getting them. It's always a challenge with documentaries, because you have to earn people's trust. Because it's such a leap of faith for them. They have no idea how the movie's going to turn out or if we're gonna say one thing and do another.

We had lots of people saying to us, you know, "You have to make the right movie," "You have to tell the truth." And we'd be, like, "Well, you have to help us tell the truth then." And they'd say, "Well, no, because I don't want to be involved." And it'd be this Catch-22: Well, how can we tell the truth and get the right movie out there if you won't participate?

So it was a lot of cat-and-mouse, but we did get pretty much everybody over the line, I'm happy to say. And they all really like the movie, which is great.

I'd imagine combing through all of that footage was a daunting task. Where do you even begin when starting that process?

Well, you need a lot of time. We researched for six months solidly with about three people before we ever started to assemble stuff. The [editor Chris King] comes on once we've got a big lump of material. Then he basically just cuts a big block within the timeline, with everything we've got, and all the while we're trying to work out what the story really is and marry it to that timeline. And then interview the right people in relation to the time.

Then it's just a question of crunching that, narrowing it down, or working out what your A strand is, your B strand is, your C strand, and then trying to find material that will illustrate what you're trying to say -- whether that's through audio or a picture. So there's a reason these films take time. Because we have no talking heads, or voiceover, we have no shortcuts.

If you've got voiceovers, you can just write the voiceover to do whatever job you want it to do. But we don't use that, and I think that's why these films work if you get them right: because they're so intimate. There are no movie shortcuts. You're just in it. Somebody described this movie as feeling like you're her best friend, and you're going on this journey with her, but you're powerless to stop it. And I think that's a result of the way we've constructed it.

[Amy's father] Mitch Winehouse has been vocal in the press about his objections to the film. Is that something you tend to expect if you know a subject is going to be shown in a less than flattering light?

Well, you know, it's always a potential outcome. But I think the reality here is we had no idea what movie we were gonna make, because we didn't have a story. It was a great leap of faith on our part. And I think Mitch had a very clear idea what he wanted the movie to be. But at the end of the day, when you're crunching 10 years into two hours it's very hard to keep everybody happy. You have to make a lot of very tough choices about what gets in the movie and what goes out.

It's a crazy endeavor really, because how can you ever really compress 10 years into two hours? But that's what we have to do. It means you're not going to keep all of the people happy all of the time. It's an unfortunate reality. But we're not doing it on purpose, and we're not trying to show anybody in the right light or the wrong light. The film is just a simple reflection of the exhaustive research we did.

Jumping off of what you were saying about condensing those years, what kind of discussions were had about how much time to devote to each period in Amy's life? Or was that largely dependent on how much footage you had from a particular period?

Partly. But it's kind of organic. I mean, we could have made a movie about 2007 alone, which is the year it all happened. She sort of meets Blake, splits up with Blake, "Back to Black" is a huge success -- I mean, you just kinda have to look at where the narrative organically is taking you.

Some years are fallow. Some people have said we didn't give a fair representation to the last three years of her life. But the movie can't be five hours long, and we think what happened in other years is more important. So it's choices; it's always choices. All movies are choices, but these in particular because of the timeframe you're trying to work with.

Obviously you use a lot of Amy's music throughout the film, and not all the renditions are the standard studio recordings. How do you decide which version of a particular song to use? How much is a discussion between the director, the rights holder, the editor, and the sound mixer?

Yeah, in the movie there actually aren't that many of the record versions, actually. We tend to use demos and live versions. Occasionally, like on "Back to Black," we start with her in the studio, then go through the demo, then we go to the actual published, recorded version at the end. So we were very keen to present versions of the song that nobody's heard before.

There's lots of music in there that are completely fresh versions. And "Love is a Losing Game" is live. The great thing about Amy's music is that it's so narrative. And so that's why the music takes such a central role in the film, because it really is driving the story forward. We realized fairly early on that she was telling us the story through her music and if we listened to the lyrics closely enough, the movie was right there.

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