DVD review of:
‘BACK TO BLACK’
by AMY WINEHOUSE
(EAGLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT)
There’s a thesis to be written comparing and contrasting the works of Adele and Amy. Adele, in control of her career, with three mega-selling albums immaculately crafted with a sure sense of Spotify-friendly melody and produced to post-Whitney ‘X-Factor’ histrionic expectations. And Amy Jade Winehouse, jazz-literate, narcotic and doomed, with essentially her one defining ‘Back To Black’ album. Comparisons are odious, but sometimes informative too. Who’s the greater artist? Who leaves the bigger imprint? Does the life validate the emotional authenticity?
This DVD is not about tabloid shock and sensation. It’s about music. A companion piece to Asif Kapadia’s insightful documentary ‘Amy’ (2015), it presents ‘The Real Story Behind The Modern Classic’, talking its way through the evolution of each stand-out ‘Back To Black’ track, showing her in her ballerina slippers in Mark Ronson’s New York Daptone studio doing run-throughs, the skinny girl from Camden in her signature piled-up Ronettes hair – ‘the little lost girl look’ says Ronnie Spector herself. Insecure, confident and vulnerable, the sheer strength of her raw vocal-power shows in the ‘dry’ reverb voice-only track and demo of “Rehab”. And then with Hip-Hop producer Salaam Remi sketching out more mid-tempo jazz material. Remi uses Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “Aint No Mountain High Enough” as template for “Tears Dry On Their Own”. She’s loud with sharp one-liners, but melancholic and depressive too, yet never less than in control of her music, working with assured ease to the Dap-Tones collaborative input.
Compare and contrast, Dusty Springfield arrives for the ‘Dusty In Memphis’ sessions, so in awe and overwhelmed by the Atlantic studio setting that she’s incapable of singing a note. Amy seems totally at ease performing. It’s her one sure environment. Ronson takes the dark underbelly of her analog-effect Crystals and Doo-Wop ‘postcard to 1964’ and upgrades it into new settings. “Rehab” is a comedy song, she says, a silly little novelty song that starts out with a slow twelve-bar Blues structure, until Ronson adds girl-group handclap momentum. Every time you hear Amy doing “Rehab” there’s an urge to shout back ‘do it, go to rehab’. If only she’d done that rehab, rather than rating her time with that sleazy guy more highly, maybe the story would end differently. Maybe.
Fame – playing the Glastonbury Pyramid Stage, was never the game. Fame was a destructive incidental by-product of the music. She starts out wanting to rescue cats, or be a journalist, or a rollerskating waitress, never a star. When she’s writing she just sits down to ‘let it all come out’. ‘Forthright and brutal’, her lyrics are honesty on a piece of paper. ‘Why would I change it? That is what came out’. She needs the ‘peaks and troughs’ of her life, because the songs are very much ‘a page in her diary’. Emotionally needy and dependent, ill-served by the men in her life, the failed affairs, messing with married men, and the abusive relationship with Blake, that’s why ‘they come out traumatised’. Does the life validate the emotional authenticity? Yes, sometimes it does. While everything is slightly improvisational too. ‘She never sang a melody the same way twice’ says Ronson, because ‘why would I do that? I already did it that way.’
Oddly, her highest-charting song was her Mark Ronson remake of the Zutons old hit “Valerie”, which peaks at no.2. The earlier debut album – ‘Frank’ (2003), recorded with Salaam Remi when she was just nineteen, was more purist jazz-derived, more specialist clique, already tapping into skilful Sarah Vaughan phrasing and Dinah Washington fluency. And afterwards, there’s the posthumous ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ (2011) gathering demos, affectionate girl-group covers, and her final recording, a Tony Bennett duet weaving around the standard “Body And Soul”.
Meanwhile there’s bonus previously-unseen rehearsal and live footage from her private Grammy-busting Hammersmith Riverside Studios concert of February 2008, on top form in ludicrous heels, a faded rose in her beehive hair, tugging and flipping the hemline of her flouncy mini. She rides a false start on “Tears Dry On Their Own”, glides into a cover of the Specials “Hey Little Rich Girl”, and plays guitar for a one-off Blue-Beat cover of Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message To You, Rudy”. Me? I’d give anything to be the Banana Daiquiri she sips onstage.
But it’s ‘Back To Black’ that encapsulates the legend. Bringing all the strands into blurred fuzzy-logic focus. There was a time when the tabloid hacks vie for their daily extreme exposés of Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse, eagerly anticipating that terminal OD. And the monochrome funeral video for “Back To Black” in mourning black is genuinely disturbing. She was living the Billie Holiday script, written into her skin, each tattoo a track-mark. But you can’t take genius intravenously. People create great music without ever taking drugs. Most junkies create nothing but misery. She leaves the legacy. ‘Her pain helps people get through pain’ says Mark Ronson. That’s no small thing.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON