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“People never saw the young, funny, healthy, beautiful and amazing girl she [Winehouse] was before mega-fame and addictions took over,” said Kapadia during an informal conversation about his popular documentary during the Toronto Film Festival’s Doc Conference.
The British director said what began as a film about Winehouse’s life and death at age 27 in July 2011 became in part an indictment of the music and entertainment industry. “A kid, she was a kid … someone who happened to be talented and somehow became famous because of her songs and her writing about personal experiences,” said Kapadia.
But music industry success and endless tabloid attention meant “this machine gobbles her up and then says it’s all your fault. You know what? This is the music business, this is show business,” he said. “If you’re rich and a millionaire, you get what you deserved, whether you want to or not,” Kapadia added.
The irony is the fellow Londoner wasn’t a fan of Winehouse before he began the doc after Universal, which saw his 2010 doc Senna, approached him. “I remember thinking, why’s she on stage? She doesn’t look great. Why is she stumbling on the streets, and why is this going on, and why isn’t anyone stopping it?” he recalled.
Not being a fan ultimately helped the director. “I don’t really want to make films about things I’m really passionate about … My fear is, if I make a film about something I love, I might hate it by the end,” Kapadia explained.
The director turned his cynicism into discovery of Winehouse’s life by interviewing around 100 people who knew and worked with her, including friends and family. He only recorded their words, never capturing them on camera, as Kapadia looked to archival footage and visuals to drive his film.
And, as he researched Winehouse’s life, he stopped listening to her songs. He studied her lyrics instead because Kapadia saw they had been plucked virtually verbatim from her diaries.
“The map was there. She wrote it all down. They’re very personal. Every song she’s talking about a real person I interviewed or a moment,” he said. Kapadia also branded Winehouse as a method singer and songwriter, repeatedly rearranging songs she penned according to her mood, and much to the frustration of record executives.
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