By: Hilary Hughes
The most stunning scene in Asif Kapadia's painful, extraordinary Amy — the new documentary tracking the rise and tragic fall of gone-too-soon pop powerhouse Amy Winehouse — is what Kapadia calls a "beautiful accident." In it, Winehouse is in the downtown confines of Chun King Studios, nestled in its blanket-padded recording booth. She's laying down the vocals for the devastating title track from 2007's Back to Black, the Mark Ronson-produced, Sixties-soul- and girl-group-channeling triumph that thrust her into the international spotlight and netted her Grammys, BRIT Awards, and other accolades galore. At this point in Amy, we see Ronson sitting at the studio console; the voiceover Kapadia chose for the clip is one in which Ronson speaks of Winehouse's prolific lyric-penning abilities and the speed with which she got the lines of "Back to Black" down on paper. The camera cuts to her preparing to sing.
In the shade of the booth, Winehouse forges poetry out of emotional masochism. The strength of her voice goes toe to toe with the intensity of her lyrics, which detail the dissolution of her mercurial relationship with the love of her life, Blake Fielder-Civil. We now know "Back to Black" as a solemn, revealing, and heartbroken dirge — albeit one set to a robust groove — an unflinching account of a woman scorned as she ruminates on her lover's infidelity: "He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet/With his same old safe bet…You went back to what you knew/So far removed from all that we went through/And I tread a troubled track/My odds are stacked/And I go back to black…" But in this moment in the film, we hear only Winehouse, her voice ringing out stark and alone until the horns and the bells swell up through her headphones and eventually surround it. Winehouse looks up from the mic. "Oohhh, it's a bit upsetting at the end, isn't it?!" She smiles, her lacquered eyes fall to the page, and she gets back to work.
"I don't even remember anyone being in the room filming it, actually, until I saw the scene in the movie," says Ronson of the "Back to Black" session in Amy. "With most singers, you record seven or eight takes. Her vocals were so great and flawless, but they were real jazzy — you just had to pick one, and you'd be like, 'Fuck! Well, am I robbing the world of ever hearing this other brilliant experience?' It was almost like you didn't want her to do too many [takes] because then the choice would be impossible for which one to take."
The man behind the camera, Matt Rogers, wasn't in the studio that day to film Winehouse in action; he was a friend of the band that backed her on Back to Black, the Dap-Kings, and frequently followed them around to shoot their performances and sessions. Being that Back to Black would serve as her proper introduction to American audiences — by way of "Rehab," "You Know I'm No Good," and that heart-wrenching title track — Winehouse was relatively unknown at that point, and Rogers started rolling only because he happened to be there, in the right place and at the right time. The footage is remarkable in that it provides the blueprint for the hit Back to Black would become. It also preserves that precious moment where Winehouse was out of the clutches of the destructive forces of fame and notoriety that led to her demise. Rogers, effectively, caught the calm before the soulful storm.
"It's incredible, that beautiful shot of her just reading the lyrics," says Kapadia. "It was this beautiful accident, I guess. You don't normally see that. You don't usually capture that moment when someone is recording the song. When we edited that track in, it synced so perfectly."
But there's something about Amy — and specifically the way it treats the making of Back to Black — that doesn't quite fit. This pivotal footage came to Kapadia indirectly through the Dap-Kings, the Brooklyn-based soul outfit known now as the pride of the Daptone Records roster and the backing band for Sharon Jones. The Dap-Kings are a vital component of Back to Black, but Amy reduces them to a footnote in her story, shown only in clips of Winehouse performing on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Tonight Show, and other television appearances. That shot of Ronson at the console wasn't filmed at Chun King, as the editing would imply, but at Daptone's Bushwick headquarters, where Ronson would later record "Valerie" with Winehouse and the Dap-Kings for his own album, Version. Kapadia interviewed Dap-King guitarist Binky Griptite for Amy, but his conversation didn't make it into the film, despite his closeness with the singer and the hours they spent performing together.
Considering how entwined the careers of Winehouse, the Dap-Kings, and Ronson were at that point, the omission of the Dap-Kings from Amy's narrative — which does an otherwise commendable job of countering the tabloid caricaturization of Winehouse by focusing on her artistic genius — is a glaring one. How can you tell Winehouse's story without diving deep into the record that lit the fuse to both her ascent and her downfall?
Kapadia's choice to leave the Dap-Kings out of Amy isn't so much an act of erasure as a necessary casualty of the editing process, one he laments now that the film is in theaters. Initially, Kapadia was worried he wouldn't have enough material for Amy. The family and friends of the singer he had reached out to were reticent at first, but they eventually spoke with Kapadia, and he wove the audio from their interviews together with an astounding audio-visual tapestry of home videos, performance clips, and sessions like the one Rogers filmed at Chun King. Amy is a documentary about Winehouse and not Back to Black, after all; both Griptite and Ronson understand this.
"It'd be great if there was more footage, but in essence, it's a movie about Amy and not [about] me and the Dap-Kings," says Ronson. "What's probably supposed to be in there is in there."
"Her story is deeper than [Back to Black]," says Griptite. "As you can see, they were working exclusively from old footage….So, in the end, I imagine they just decided not to use any of the footage that included me. The focus of the story was really Amy's life and Amy's struggles, so it made sense that they didn't say much about the Dap-Kings, because we're a bit of a sidebar."
Still, it's the tapes of Griptite and Winehouse singing stripped-down renditions of Back to Black tracks that Kapadia wishes he could've kept for the final cut. "I want to put an extended version out, and I'd have some of the performances where she sang acoustic versions of the songs with Griptite on guitar," he says. "I wish I could put those out there, because I have this amazing material of them. You just end up with so much [footage] that you can't fit in. It's just a time issue, and it's a real difficult situation with this type of movie. In a perfect world, we'd have more music. That's what we all love about her."
Griptite and Winehouse got along famously. This promotional session treatment of "Back to Black," where the song is stripped down to little more than chords of the steel-stringed and vocal variety, is proof of this immediate ease, even though the singer and guitarist didn't meet face to face until after Back to Black had been mastered. Winehouse was based in London when Back to Black was in the works, and Ronson was heading into the studio with the Dap-Kings in New York; he recorded Winehouse and the Dap-Kings' parts separately, playing each of them the other's vocal or instrumental tracks and then recording them singing or playing along. The album was finished long before Winehouse and the Dap-Kings had shaken hands, let alone shared a stage.
"She never met any of the band until the record came out," recalls Ronson. "I remember when she called me when she first got the CD booklet with the credits, and she said, 'You mean to tell me that the guy that played on my album is named Binky Griptite?!' " He laughs. "She loved all the instrumentals and everything at that point, but she hadn't met any of the guys. In October or November [of 2006] when she came to do promo for the album, I took her over to Daptone for the first time. It was kind of a lovely day, and it was one of the last times I remember her just being unencumbered by any threat of drama or press or paparazzi, all that shit, just kind of walking completely free around Brooklyn. We went to the studio, and they met and hit it off, and we actually recorded 'Valerie' that day for my album."
On January 16, 2007, Winehouse and the Dap-Kings took the stage at Joe's Pub for their first performance together for Winehouse's American debut. Jay Z was there, as were Mos Def — a close friend of Winehouse's whom Kapadia interviewed for Amy — and Ronson. Amy Linden wrote of the Joe's Pub performance for the Voice in January of 2008, shortly after "Rehab" topped the Pazz + Jop poll as the previous year's best single, that the debut was rife with promise — and grim foreshadowing: "By the end of the gig, everyone knew that Amy, all 85 or so pounds of her, had smacked r&b back to life. In four-inch pumps. The intimate club was filled with unabashed love, and she knew it. But between her flashes of genuine happiness, Amy was distracted and disengaged…She sounded great, but acted like she didn't believe it. It made me fear that Amy had the talent to be a star, but might not have the strength."
Onstage, Winehouse didn't necessarily stick her landing with the critics, but she found her footing with the Dap-Kings. "When we played 'Fuck Me Pumps,' I'd just learned the song that day," recalls Griptite. "It starts with [an] unaccompanied guitar [part]. I blew the fourth chord and had to start over. On the mic, she says, 'You're fired!' I cringe and start the song again. Not much later, she made a mistake of her own, and I felt vindicated, 'cause if she can't remember the shit she wrote then why should I? That happened every time she and I did duo gigs. We took turns fucking up, and would laugh it off later."
That night marked the beginning of the big headlines and the big, brutal spotlight that suddenly turned its merciless light on the singer. While Joe's Pub set the scene for Winehouse's introduction to the American industry, Griptite notes that it was also a reality check. The Dap-Kings, and Daptone at large, were very much independent and not a part of the major-label world — "Some of the guys were not as into it because she was on a major label; they didn't feel it was as organic [of a collaboration] as they would've liked" — and Winehouse definitely was, from the jump.
"To me, it was sort of a case study in the music business," Griptite explains. "I studied it for so long from the sidelines, and then coming up with Antibalas and the Dap-Kings, we've always been on the independent side. We got to play great music with great people, and we had great fun, but it's not the same as being in the machine, you know? When we did that first show with her at Joe's Pub, that was my first sense of how in the machine she was, just because backstage was crawling with record label people — that's who the show was for. It was a very different experience from the shows the Dap-Kings would do on our own. All these record label people, and Mos Def goes by on a skateboard, and Jay Z is stopping by to say hi — that was just like, 'OK.' "
Kapadia couldn't secure scenes from the Joe's Pub performances for Amy, much to his dismay. "I did search for that footage for months, and I found the guy who shot it, and I called him to [make the] pitch, and for various reasons, it got cut down and it's not in the finished film." He sighs. "But yeah — I've seen the performance from Joe's Pub….That was the show to be at. That was her first outing in New York, performing, and sadly, it became one of the best performances she ever did."
Both Ronson and Griptite praise Kapadia's Amy as a documentary that accurately and respectfully represents Back to Black in terms of the story's larger scope. "They didn't really focus on Back to Black very much, and I think that was appropriate," reiterates Griptite. "It was really about showing the transformation of a girl who loved to sing into what happens."
"I think I just thought, 'We'll talk about Amy and the work that we did,' " Ronson says of his involvement with the documentary. "I knew that he was making a movie that wasn't just a celebration of her music and her legacy, but more of a forensic examination behind the tragedy. I guess that's a more important film in some ways. It's hard to remove myself enough from it to go, 'This is a good movie.' It's a powerful movie, and I'm aware enough to be able to watch it and go, 'That's a well-made film.' "
It's intriguing to think of the live performance footage and conversations Kapadia wishes he had time to include in the film's final cut — the Joe's Pub performance, clips of Griptite and Winehouse performing together, more time with the Dap-Kings — but in turning his lens on Winehouse, he remained faithful to the dynamics of the relationships she so valued before the fade to black: the ones that grew stronger with every passing measure between the singer, the producer, and the band behind her. If anything, Amy inspires to such a degree that it drives home the point that Back to Black's story deserves its own opus.
"Some of the stuff is too hard for me to even subjectively watch," says Ronson. "My wife never met Amy, you know, and I would always tell her these stories, some anecdotes, some things that she said, her sharp wit, that kind of thing. When we saw the movie for the first time, I asked my wife, 'Did you like the movie?' And she was like, 'Yeah, and I understand the Amy you always talked about.' I guess I took for granted that a lot of people didn't really see that side."