Amy Winehouse – Back to Black, the new documentary about the making of the late singer’s 2006 breakthrough album, turns away from the tabloid aspects of her life — the suffocating paparazzi, contentious relationship with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil and her battle with drugs and alcohol — to focus on her creative genius.
Of course, knowing how her story ends — Winehouse died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning at age 27, leaving her second album as her swan song — is inherently tragic. But that’s not how the film — out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital on Nov. 2 from Eagle Vision’s Classic Albums division — approaches its subject. Instead, the album is thoughtfully dissected track by track by the people involved in its creation.
The hourlong doc opens with footage from Winehouse’s 2008 Grammy Awards appearance backed by the Dap-Kings. She won five awards that night — a first for a British woman — accepted via satellite from London after she was denied a visa into the U.S. But it then reflects back on 2004 when Winehouse started work on the seminal album that went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide.
In fresh interviews for the project, Back to Black producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, mix engineer Tom Elmhirst, and studio musicians from the Dap-Kings listen back to the songs and recall memories of the writing and recording sessions. The accounts are often paired with intimate footage of Winehouse creating and singing in the studio, as well as close-ups of her handwritten lyrics.
Winehouse’s best friend Juliette Ashby, goddaughter Dionne Bromfield, first manager Nick Shymansky and Island A&R executive Darcus Beese (now president of Island Records U.S.) are also among the interviewees.
For the title track, Winehouse reveals in the film that on her time off she’d play pool all day in the pub and listen to doo-wop and ’60s Motown girl groups on the jukebox, which influenced her. Ronson says he was inspired by the music she played him and came up with the piano part for “Black to Black” and added the drums and tambourine. “She came to the studio at noon and she was instantly, ‘Oh, cool. I love it. Let me go write something to it,’” he recalls.
“I didn’t really question the lyrics,” he says. “The only thing, as a producer, you think everything should rhyme because that’s pop structure, and I remember when she showed me the chorus in ‘Back to Black’ — ‘We only said goodbye in words/ I died a thousand times’ — I was like, ‘Do you think that’s weird? Should you change it?’ She looked at me a little bit dumbfounded like, ‘Why would I change it? That is what came out. This is honesty on a piece of paper.’”
There are equally interesting tidbits for all the songs. For “Love Is a Losing Game,” Ronson knew Winehouse hated strings, calling them “hammy” and “schlocky… So I kind of did them, not really behind her back but [thought], ‘Let me do some strings behind her back [laughs] and maybe she’ll like it,’” he says, as the song plays in the background. “She was listening to the mix for the first time with her head down on the desk for the whole song so I couldn’t read her reaction and then she just turned ’round [and said], ‘I love it.’”
As a bonus with the Back to Black making-of doc, Eagle Vision has added a previously unreleased concert from the 2008 Grammy night called An Evening in London that Winehouse performed for friends, family and record execs at Riverside Studios.