Camden, not Hackney, is the place with which the singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning, will always be associated.
But for Hackney-born director Asif Kapadia, whose acclaimed documentary Amy tells the story of the singer’s precarious life and untimely death, Winehouse could have been “a girl from down the road”.
Unlike other films directed by Kapadia, such as the award-winning documentary Senna, Amy is a London film. And like many fellow Londoners, Kapadia was moved by the singer’s life.
“Something happened with Amy Winehouse,” says Kapadia, explaining why he decided to make the film. “I wanted to know how that happened in front of our eyes. How can someone die like that in this day and age?
“For me, she was like a girl from down the road. I grew up in the same part of the world. She could have been someone I knew, someone I was friends with or might have gone to school with. I thought we should investigate.”
Kapadia was born in 1972, the youngest of five children. He went to Homerton House school (now the site of City Academy) and began his film career as a runner on student films.
After undertaking an HND at Newport Film School, Kapadia studied film-making at the University of Westminster before completing a Masters in film and TV direction at the Royal College of Art.
Amy has already broken box office records, and looks set to challenge Senna, Kapadia’s documentary about Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna, as the highest grossing British documentary of all time.
Like Amy Winehouse, Ayrton Senna was an icon who died in tragic circumstances. But researching the story and carrying out interviews for Senna proved a more straightforward process.
“With Senna there were a lot of books and a lot of people knew the story. With Amy it became apparent that no one knew the story, or that people were not willing to tell it.”
Many of Winehouse’s closest friends apparently took a ‘vow of silence’ after her funeral, so to complete the 100 plus interviews that make up the film’s narrative, the production team needed to win over their trust, a process that took almost a year.
“It was all quite recent and painful for a lot of people and there was a lot of guilt and a lot of baggage,” adds producer James Gay-Rees.
“The whole experience took an awful lot out of all these people, understandably.
It is hard to imagine what it must be like to see your closest childhood or teenage friend going through the perils of celebrity and mega-fame, knowing that there were underlying issues that would come to the fore.”
Kapadia made the songs and lyrics of Amy Winehouse central to the film. “Once you understand her life and you read the lyrics, they run much deeper than you might have thought,” he says.
“I thought all we have to do is unravel what these lyrics are about. That for me became the big revelation. This is a film about Amy and her writing.”
Amy is on general release in cinemas now.