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Amy Winehouse in Back to Black
Amy Winehouse in Back to BlackCourtesy Eagle Rock

A new Amy Winehouse doc raises the question: who gets to tell her story?

Back to Black is just one of several posthumous projects that have been announced recently, including a Hollywood biopic and a touring hologram

In Back to Black, a new documentary from production company Eagle Rock, we get to hear unedited acapella recordings of Amy Winehouse’s voice that have never been heard before. It’s so familiar as a music documentary trope that it feels almost cliché: the nostalgic producer hits play, and her doleful, unmistakable voice fills the room. The emotional impact is heavy. But, in Back to Black, it occurs so many times that it starts to feel a little uncomfortable – a constant reminder of the person who’s not in the room.

The discomfort of these scenes is one that summarises the essential problem of making a film about a musician after their death. What we end up watching is a reel of people pressing “play” and “pause” on this artist’s voice, which floats free of its intended context, and is interrupted so that others can construct a narrative around it.

In recent weeks, it feels like a dam of Amy Winehouse-related content has broken. This film is set to be released on November 2 by production company Eagle Rock, which was acquired by Amy’s label Universal Music Group in 2014. (The CEO of UMG, David Joseph, also acted as an executive producer on Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary Amy.)

In the wake of the announcement of Back to Black, Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse has also announced a Hollywood biopic in the making from Monumental Pictures, led by producers Alison Owen and Debra Hayward, with the Winehouse family on board as executive producers. (This is roundly considered a response to Kapadia’s documentary, which the Winehouse family distanced themselves from.) In the meantime, Amy will also be going on tour; or at least, a hologram of her, created by American company Base Hologram, will. The hologram is endorsed by the Winehouse family, and will “incorporate fundraising and awareness” for the foundation for troubled young people that was established by them in her name. “Here is a chance to show the world the real Amy, through a hologram,” Mitch Winehouse told the Guardian.

It’s been seven years since Amy died of alcohol poisoning. The difficult question of whether this is “enough” time to begin unpacking her legacy through films, boxsets, and holograms is a highly subjective one, and one to which only her family and close friends can give the most authoritative answer. But when there are this many headlines, about this many Amy-related projects at once, surely it’s natural to feel some skepticism. Back in 2015, we were told by David Joseph of UMG that Winehouse’s demos for her third album were destroyed by the label, in the moral interest of protecting her vocal stems from money-hungry producers. But three years on, in 2018, it feels like a goldrush is beginning.

The documentary Back to Black sets out with a noble aim: to focus on Amy’s music. Kapadia’s 2015 film, for all its emotional sensitivity and heft, was criticised for not having much of a focus on Amy as an artist, and even an auteur. Back to Black feels like an opportunity to correct this – the film’s focus is squarely on the making of Amy’s eponymous, hugely successful second album. Interviews with Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, the two key producers on the project, take the viewer inside the rooms where the album was written, and shed light on her creative process. Both men speak of her with boundless warmth, and reveal aspects of her character in fond anecdotes.

We learn that the instrumental of “Tears Dry on Their Own” was based on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and we hear aborted vocal takes of Amy attempting to sing it at the right speed (the song was originally much slower). Instrumentalists and collaborators describe what it was like to be in the room with her genius. Ronson explains how the song “Rehab” came to life from an intimate conversation he had with the singer. These kinds of tidbits are irresistible and illuminating to fans.

“It’s impossible to tell the story of Amy’s music without talking about her demons, just as you can’t talk about her demons without acknowledging her musical genius”

But, at times, the film loses sight of its virtuous goals, and it seems unclear what its true aims are. In a segment about the song “Just Friends”, we’re shown a montage of Amy drinking on stage, set to her lyrics about depression and alcoholism. Later in the film, there is a section that addresses her drug and alcohol addiction, and her marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil. As part of this section, we watch paparazzi footage of Amy drunk, and an uncomfortably long clip of her on stage while too inebriated to perform. If this is a film supposedly only about her creative process, what are these decontextualised and unempathetically presented pieces of footage trying to achieve?

The problem is not only that the film doesn’t stick to its premise, but that the premise is flawed to begin with. It’s impossible to tell the story of Amy’s music without talking about her demons, just as you can’t talk about her demons without acknowledging her musical genius. She was a complex, contradictory, fully alive human being, and no single project made by outsiders can be the definitive retelling of her story.

In Back to Black, Ronson tells an anecdote about Winehouse refusing to change her lyrics when he suggested that she should, because they didn’t rhyme. The story goes that she looked at him, perplexed, asking why she should change it when “that’s honesty on a piece of paper”. The anecdote tells us something about how highly Amy prized authenticity. It also highlights what this film lacks: a commitment to truth-telling, even when the truth is complicated and messy. Like the hologram that is going on tour as Amy, and other posthumous projects being produced, it might be well-intended and occasionally entertaining, but is ultimately a hollow stand-in for the real thing.