Unlike many other titles in the Classic Albums series, Back To Black is a record I was fully in the wake of. I remember “Rehab” as a weekly entry in the Vh1 Top 20 Video Countdown. I remember girls in high school who played those songs on loop and attempted to emulate Amy Winehouse in one way or another. I was curious to hear how a documentary would shape an album I remember rather than one I’d only heard.
Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, the bulk of this episode was musically based. There wasn’t much in the form of historical perspective or significance (maybe 10 years is still a little too close for such analysis) nor was their much armchair psychology regarding Winehouse’s well-documented demise. It was instead all about the songwriting/production process- and Winehouse’s central and brilliant role in both.
The most interesting recurring element in this documentary is the concurrent stories from the albums two producers – Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi. It’s certainly not rare for an artist to use more than one producer (the days of one producer/godfather figure ala George Martin or Nigel Godrich are largely extinct), but with that comes the expense of crafting a unified album. It’s glaringly apparent that Ronson and Remi had different approaches for their half of Back To Black. Ronson worked in a modest New York studio and leaned on The Dap Kings as a backing band to flesh out arrangements. Remi worked from his gorgeous home studio in Miami with a modest collection of players. Two different approaches, yet Back To Black is able to achieve the status of a tried and true album. The thread, as both men were quick to point out, was Winehouse.
There were other fun anecdotes like how “Rehab” originated from a conversation and was written as a slow 12 bar blues before Ronson suggested an uptempo, 60s girl group vibe. Or how “Tears Dry On Their Own” was written as its own song before Remi suggested the interpolation of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” This was a welcome addition to the series and inspires optimism that future episodes will have a similar focus.