Film and TV

Our Fascination With Amy Winehouse Is Only Growing Stronger

With the documentary Amy opening in wide release today, Amy Winehouse is more popular now than at any time since her death in July 2011, and arguably even more than at any time she was alive. Her myth has now had four years to grow, while the very limited amount of music she released continues to leave its fingerprints all over today's pop. According to The Hollywood Reporter, her 2006 LP Back to Black reentered the UK albums chart this week at No. 22; it's already sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. All Music Guide reports that it has topped Billboard's Catalog Albums chart every year since 2011, including this one. (It's currently at No. 12, but probably not for long.) Meanwhile, the recent limited-release screenings of Amy have raked in an impressive $37,000 per location across six theaters in New York and L.A., THR says. It's going to make a lot more this weekend.

The documentary's near-guaranteed success is hardly a surprise. Back to Black is a brilliant album, the kind of record that forges an instant bond with listeners the first time they hear it. Then, instead of committing to the pop-star cycle of touring and recording — with occasional pauses to accept Grammy Awards, make a movie, maybe start a family, etc. — Winehouse became a Kardashian-level tabloid target in the UK (the U.S. wasn't that far off) for a lifestyle that perhaps only Prince Harry or the Libertines' Pete Doherty had a prayer of keeping up with. As the years stretched by with no new music, but songs from Back to Black still all over the place, Winehouse's legend only loomed larger. Recently on NPR's Fresh Air, Amy director Asif Kapadia explained how this created a kind of 21st-century perfect storm:

Amy sold newspapers. If she was on the cover of a tabloid, it sold more copies. If she was on a Web site, they got more hits. It was the dawning of the digital age, with the advent of YouTube, Facebook and other popular cultural Web sites. She was the unlucky one to be having a nervous breakdown in public at the time.

When Winehouse appeared, the major female pop stars of the mid-2000s were Beyonce, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Simpson. Talented performers, certainly, but with the exception of Clarkson, all of them had been so stylized into creatures of pure showbiz that they came up a little short in the relatability department. Winehouse was almost their direct opposite; in the right mood (or maybe the wrong one), Back to Black can be so real it's painful to listen to. Released in very late 2006, the album spent most of 2007 on the charts as now-timeless singles like “Rehab,” “You Know I'm No Good” and the title track infiltrated various radio formats, “Rehab” reaching the Top 10. Those songs' relatively modest chart performance doesn't quite express just how ubiquitous they were back then. either.

Suddenly a different sort of pop starlet was visibly on the scene. Not coincidentally, these women paired contemporary slang with music inspired by Phil Spector's girl groups, Motown and harder-edged '60s R&B. There was already Joss Stone, whose retro-soul vibe had been turning heads for a few years, and Lily Allen, whose debut Alright, Still preceded Back to Black by a few months. Add to that Corinne Bailey-Rae, Duffy, Kate Nash and Leona Lewis in short order. And then there was Adele, whose 2011 LP 21 — also produced by Winehouse's friend and Back to Black collaborator Mark Ronson — blew this trend up to blockbuster proportions; it more or less established this kind of sound as pop's default setting, all the way through Meghan Trainor last year. (Interestingly, Taylor Swift's 1989 may be the first major pop album by a female artist since Back to Black that doesn't sound a little like '60s soul.)

It's also worth pointing out that many players on Back to Black were the core group of Dap-Tone Records, the Brooklyn-based label that helped spark the ongoing vintage-R&B revival; Winehouse's album is a touchstone of that sound. (Dap-Tone's flagship band, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, perform in The Woodlands tonight as part of the "Wheels of Soul" tour.) But backing up a bit, Winehouse's appearance at SXSW 2007 alone was such a media circus it deserves to be recalled by a few different sources.

Complex [from March 2010]: Having just released her seminal Back to Black the previous fall, Winehouse floored Austin crowds with a voice so sultry it sounded like it belonged to an old black woman. She'd go on to enjoy the acclaim for about eight more months before engaging in a spirited quest of self destruction from which she has yet to rebound.

MTV: Impossibly thin with a towering black beehive hairdo and a sailor-worthy menagerie of tattoos, wearing tightly pegged jeans, a food-stained white undershirt and dirty pink ballet slippers, Winehouse played a four-song set that showed off her strong, soulful pipes on songs including her hit single, “Rehab.” It was hard to ignore the deep scratches all over her left arm and her twitchy mannerisms, though.

Austin Chronicle: There's a thin line that separates talented pop and R&B stars from the jazz masters, and while Winehouse may wobble slightly across it, she comes closer to the Holidays and Fitzgeralds of yesteryear than any of her contemporaries could ever hope. Her live glossiness lacked the rough edges of the greats, but when she let loose, the lights rattled. "I'm drunk," she laughed before launching into "Rehab," which finally gained the crowd's full approval. The irony with hearing her sing the line "I don't never want to drink again" as she takes another gulp is apparent, but her covering the Zutons' 2006 "Valerie" to close wasn't at all. Winehouse is full of surprises, but her sometimes-abrasive candor might be just the shot in the arm that the States need.

A few key takeaways: By 2010, Back to Black was already “seminal.” Winehouse had obvious difficulty keeping her private demons offstage. And at age 23, she already merited positive comparisons to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. In the process of appreciating Winehouse's enormous musical gifts and zero-fucks-given attitude, these reviewers can hardly hide their joy at what good copy she was going to be, presumably for years to come. She certainly was, and still is; but that's not all she was.

Winehouse coined the term “fuckery,” or at least put it into common usage. She partied more than most of us could ever hope to, however long we wind up living. She looked normal — for people who grew up in the '80s and '90s, anyway — and, unlike most pop stars of her time, seemed vulnerable. When she sang, she really seemed vulnerable. And she died at age 27, just like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. When we remember Amy Winehouse, her legend will always make good copy, but it's still those songs from Back to Black that tell her real story.

Amy opens today at the Cinemark Market Street (9595 Six Pines Dr., The Woodlands); Edwards Greenway Grand Palace (3839 Weslayan); and Edwards Marq*e (7620 Katy Fwy.).
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray