Music is riddled with ghosts. You can’t see them. You can’t feel them. But they’re there. No more so than in Camden, in which missing faces and absent voices haunt every venue in town.
Camden Town once belonged to Amy Winehouse. On Chalk Farm Road, she still lords it over the Stables Market, in bronze form, obviously. Thanks to the street artist Pegasus, she’s still beaming from the exterior of The Earl Of Camden pub on Parkway. But stop to take the weight off your feet at the Hawley Arms pub, and there’s nobody handing out lollypops to punters these days, nobody hobbling up the stairs to their own private room. The paparazzi don’t hang about outside so much now, either, though really, it’s too little too late.
Some of the regulars can still see her, there at the bar, barking that deep, filthy laugh, if they really, really try. But to the rest of us, it’s a bit like looking at a rainbow that’s missing a colour.
The DVD release of Amy’s Classic Albums show, focusing on her breakthrough ‘Back To Black’, contains the full palate of tones that made her all too brief an existence so vivid and now her absence still so missed. It opens with footage from her 2008 Grammy’s appearance – Amy all in black, the Dap-Kings behind locked perfectly into the rhythm that she is defiantly not – and the first thing that strikes you, is just how jittery her performance is. Not sloppy. Not fucked up. Tragically that would come soon after. But at that moment, she just feels human. It reminds you how synchronised pop has become in the years since she’s passed.
If you could pause the film to stop what comes next, I doubt many wouldn’t reach for the control. But life doesn’t work like that. And so the ghosts rattle their chains.
The tragedy of Amy Winehouse varies from where you’re standing and your relation to her. For the average music fan, the choker is the relatively small amount of material she was able to commit to tape before her untimely passing. Perhaps that’s a tragedy for those who worked with her too. Friends and family. Sure, it doesn’t rank above never having that smile blazing back at you again. But Amy loved music, creativity and culture so much, it’s a tragedy so much of her legacy is told through the pages of redtops and not those of music media.
In many ways, this film attempts to readdress that. It’s a break from ‘troubled’ Amy and a reframing of Amy the artist. Not that it doesn’t delve deep into an album that’s positively throbbing with emotional lacerations. If the Manic Street Preachers 1994 classic ‘The Holy Bible’ documented the unpeeling of a great mind, Amy’s 2006 record – her second, after her mostly two-dimensional 2003 debut, Frank – concerns itself with the destruction of a great heart, one that is pulled apart here like a trainee mortician might, in an attempt to understand it.
This sort of territory has been done better already – more cohesively is a better term – principally within the 2015 Asif Kapadia documentary Amy. But it’s when the film gets to the nuts and bolts of the record – the actual fixtures and fittings – that it really proves its worth. It’s at this point that the film focuses its sights on telling the story of a musician, a supremely talented one, and not a celebrity.
In conversation with the Dap-Kings, producer Mark Ronson recalls the speed Amy approached the writing of the record. It’s clear that these were songs, shaped by the retro-fetishism she’d recently gone all in on for sixties soul and girl groups – mostly discovered via the jukebox that sat in the pool hall closest to the New York studio in which most of the sessions took place – that she was frantic to commit to tape. There’s a romantic, quaint, if implausible theory, one that’s been repeated by so many musicians now it’s impossible to attribute it to the source, that all the great songs are already written. They’re floating about in the either, the trick is to catch them. If so Amy was swiping with a baseball mitt.
What she was definitely doing was what we all do when we fall in love, and that’s rush in headlong.
It’s difficult to see her lyrics written down on the page as the camera pans her journal. Such florid handwriting – hearts in the margins, lines across the A5, different coloured biros – surely shouldn’t be writing such salient truths. Ronson critiques the lyric “I died a thousand deaths”. He likes lyrics that rhyme. He asks if she wants to rewrite it. Amy responds with bewilderment. “Why would I change it?” like the idea of reworking her truth for the sake of aesthetics is tantamount to tap-dancing in dogshit.
Nothing haunts the film like the isolated vocal of the title track, which Tom Elmhirst, the record’s mix engineer, plays through the studio desk. Overdubs are added to it. Then reverb. Until eventually the song defines the records sound. 1963, essentially. Then the narrative switches to Miami, where under the watchful eye of producer Salaam Remi – almost parental, in opposition to the playfulness of Ronson’s relationship with Amy – the singer continues her exploration of her musical romance, right down the roots. The ‘broken-bottle’ pioneer takes us on a tour of the instruments that were used in the records creation, and while it’s again implausible to think that a piece of wood and chrome holds actual magic – thanks to one of great music’s true wonders – it’s easy to believe for a while.
The film ends like a sort of fever dream, home video footage and studio outtakes meshing together, as if predicting the chaos that was about to be unleashed by the subsequent release of the artists labour. Nothing can change that – but films like this can help change the narrative. One of the films final notes is of Amy playing guitar in a recording booth, laughing and smiling, drunk on sound, the voice emanating from her lips unquestionably one of music’s great instruments, the singer content in her own world. Oblivious of what’s next to come.
In that moment Amy isn’t a ghost, but an angel. Remember her like that. She deserves it.
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black: The Documentary is released on November 2nd on DVD and Blu-ray. It comes packaged with a previously unseen live show, recorded for friends and family in February 2008, the evening she won five Grammy’s, entitled An Intimate Evening In London.