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.”
‘You don’t usually capture that moment when someone is recording the song.’
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.”
‘You mean to tell me that the guy that played on my album is named Binky Griptite?!’
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.”
"Back to Black" is a song by English singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse. It was released by Island Records on 30 April 2007 as the third single from Winehouse's second and final studio albumof the same name. The song was written by Winehouse and Mark Ronson, and produced by Ronson. "Back to Black" was inspired by Winehouse's relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who had left her for an ex-girlfriend.
"Back to Black" received universal acclaim by music critics, who generally praised its throwback sound to girl groups from the 1960s. It was included on several compiled year and decade-end lists of the best in music and was further considered to be one of the singer's signature songs. The single peaked at number eight on the UK Singles Chart in the United Kingdom and is Winehouse's third best-selling single in that country. Many cover versions by various artists were recorded for the song; most notably, Beyoncé and André 3000 covered it for the soundtrack of the 2013 film adaptation of the novel The Great Gatsby (1925).
A documentary film based on the life and death of Winehouse, Amy (2015) features a videoed tape of Winehouse recording the song with Mark Ronson, in March 2006 and an a cappella melody was featured on the film's soundtrack.
Background and composition
"Back to Black" was written by Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson with the latter also serving as its producer. The track was recorded in three studios – Chung King Studios and Daptone Studios located in New York City and Metropolis Studios in London. "Back to Black" was inspired by her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. He had left Winehouse for an ex-girlfriend, leaving her going to "black," which to the listener may appear to refer to drinking and depression. However, the "black" to which she refers is more likely heroin, to which she was openly addicted; "black" is the second most common street name for heroin in Los Angeles.
"Back to Black" explores elements of old school soul music. The song's sound and beat have been described as similar to vintage girl groups from the 1960s. Its production was noted for its Wall of Sound. Winehouse expresses feelings of hurt and bitterness for a boyfriend who has left her; however, throughout the lyrics she "remains strong" exemplified in the opening lines, "He left no time to regret, Kept his dick wet, With his same old safe bet, Me and my head high, And my tears dry, Get on without my guy". The song's lyrical content consists of a sad goodbye to a relationship with the lyrics being frank.Slant Magazine writer Sal Cinquemani suggested that the protagonist's lover may be committed to cocaine instead of another woman. John Murphy of musicOMH compared the song's introduction to songs by Jimmy Mack, adding that it continues to a "much darker place" than the aforementioned artist's work.
The song has received universal critical acclaim by music critics. A writer from the website 4Music awarded the song ten stars out of ten in a review saying it managed to be as good as the 1960s girl group classics from which it was influenced. The writer went on to praise the "thoroughly modern Amy, who writes her own songs about love and sex and drugs and knows her own mind, but still gets hurt in a way only grown-ups can get hurt". Matt Harvey from BBC felt that the song owed to the "sonic heritage" of singers Phil Spector and Scott Walker and went on to call it "a tortured monster of a track - Amy displaying the sort of vocal depth that Marc Almond has always dreamed of".AllMusic writer John Bush found universality in the song and opined that even Joss Stone could take it to the top of the music charts. Alex Denney from the website Drowned in Sound found "grit and gravitas" in Back to Black best shown in its title song with a "heart-stopping shuffle" and lyrics about a man's philander.
In 2007, the song was included at the position of 39 on Popjustice's list of the year's best in music. Slant Magazine also mentioned it in their respective list of the best singles of the year, with Sal Cinquemani writing, "[It] is not only the singer's finest moment but producer Mark Ronson's as well". Writers of Rolling Stone magazine placed "Back to Black" at number 98 on their list of the 100 best Songs of the '00s praising Winehouse's trademark "stormily soulful" vocals and the updated sensibility.NME editors listed it at 61 on an eponomyous list for the magazine, writing that the song proved the album's real depth and added, "Hard faced and broken-souled, its knowing wallowing spoke to anyone who'd ever had a bunnyboiler moment". "Back to Black" was further considered to be one of Winehouse's signature songs. Justin Myers writing for the Official Charts Company remarked that it was the singer's most "anguished" song while also being "[h]eartbreakingly autobiographical" at the same time. Tim Chester of NME also wrote that "Back to Black" was a song by which the singer should be remembered following her death, with Motown influence in her trademark vocal performance along with its powerful lyrics.
Pre-release, the song charted in the UK Singles Chart on downloads alone for five consecutive weeks, peaking at number 40. The single charted at number 25 in 2007 once it had been released in physical format which also became its peak position in that country.; The song has spent 34 non-consecutive weeks on the UK Singles Chart to date. It has re-entered with "Rehab" together on the chart. The song featured on BBC Radio 1's The B List Playlist during the week commencing 2 May. With sales of 96,000, "Back to Black" finished as the UK's 85th biggest-selling single of 2007. On 31 July 2011, following her death, the song re-entered the UK Singles Chart at 8, also giving the song a new peak position and second top ten hit in UK. As of September 2014, "Back to Black" has sold 340.000 copies in the UK and is Winehouse's third best-selling single in that country. In America, due to strong digital sales of the single over the years, "Back to Black" was certified platinum for over 1,000,000 sales/downloads by the RIAA in January 2015.
The music video was directed by Phil Griffin and features a funeral procession in which Winehouse mourns over a grave that reads "R.I.P. the Heart of Amy Winehouse". The shot of the headstone was edited out after the singer's death in 2011. The video was primarily shot nearby Gibson Gardens and Chesholm Road in Stoke Newington, London. The graveyard scenes were filmed at Abney Park Cemetery in north-east London. According to the official Winehouse website, "Amy's sultry new video for Back In Black [sic] is both beautifully and artistically shot in black-and-white and compares in imagery a doomed love affair with that of a funeral." At the 2007 Music of Black Origin Awards (MOBO), the music video for the song was nominated in the category for Best Video but lost to Kanye West's "Stronger" (2007). Myers of the Official Charts Company deemed the clip "super-sad" and felt it went further on the song's main theme of goodbye. As of December 2016, the video has over 175 million views on YouTube.
Usage in media
During 2007, the song was also used various times for TV trail campaigns, such as for BBC's Philip Pullman adaptation The Shadow in the North in December 2007. The song was used in the pilot episode of Gossip Girl. Phil Tufnell and his dance partner Katya Virshilas performed a tango to "Back to Black" in the seventh series of Strictly Come Dancing. A sample of "Back to Black" was used by screamo band Comadre in the song "Binge", which is about Amy Winehouse and the downward spiral leading to her death. The song was used as part of Mexican telenovela Llena de Amor for English-born Mexican actress Azela Robinson for her stripper character (La Reina). The song was used in a Canadian trailer for the BBC America/Space program Orphan Black. In 2013, "Back to Black" was included on the soundtrack of the film About Time (2013). The song was used in the teaser trailer and official trailer for the documentary film about Winehouse, Amy.
The song also appeared in instrumental form in the HBO series, Westworld. In 2017, 'Back to Black' was played at the end of the first episode of season 7 of the TV series, 'Suits'.
Track listings and formats
- Digital download – Remixes & B-Sides EP (2015)
- "Back to Black" (The Rumble Strips Remix) – 3:49
- "Back to Black" (Mushtaq Vocal Remix) – 4:03
- "Back to Black" (Original Demo) – 3:01
- "Back to Black" (Vodafone Live at TBA) – 3:53
- "Back to Black" (Steve Mac Vocal) – 6:03
Certifications and sales
A cover version of "Back to Black" by the English band The Rumble Strips appears as a B-side to their 2007 "Motorcycle" EP. On the fourth season of the UK TV talent show The X Factor, the girl group Hope covered the song during one of their live performances. Lightspeed Champion included a cover of this song as a B-side to their 2008 single "Tell Me What It's Worth". His version was a stripped-down rendition, from a different gender perspective. Priya Elan of NME considered his cover to be one of the best covers by a song by Winehouse classifiying it as "suitably distraught and heartbroken". "Back to Black" was covered twice on the Live Lounge segment of BBC Radio 1's The Jo Whiley Show, first by Elbow on 5 June 2008 and later by Glasvegas on 1 September 2008. Elbow's version contained a string accompaniment which backed the lead singer's vocals.Ronnie Spector has occasionally performed a rendition of "Back to Black" during live performances. A version recorded by her was released through iTunes Store on 2 August 2011. The song appeared on French singer Amanda Lear's 2009 album, Brief Encounters. The cover was also released as a single on 13 December 2012 containing three versions of the song; the album version, an acoustic version and a "Dance Amanda's Vino Della Casa Mix". The writers of the website Idolator, described her cover as "one of the strangest Amy Winehouse covers".
"Back to Black" was covered by Paije Richardson during the seventh series of The X Factor in one of the live shows. The song was covered on Glee in the second season episode "Funeral" by Naya Rivera's character Santana Lopez. On 29 July 2011, during a performance at I Want My MTV Ibiza, Mark Ronson covered "Back to Black" with Charlie Waller as a tribute to Winehouse, several days after her death. He revealed that the song was one of the first songs they had written together. He also told the crowd that Waller's inclusion for the performance was due to Winehouse's positive reaction after hearing his cover of "Back to Black" with The Rumble Strips. A writer of MTV UK praised his performance, saying that it was sending "a tingle down the spine and causing the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end". "Back to Black" was performed by English singer Florence Welch during the VH1 Divas concert at Hammerstein Ballroom on 18 December 2011 in New York City. Welch performed the song as a tribute to Winehouse after her death. Mark Graham of VH1 praised Welch's performance of the song, noting that thanks to it Winehouse's musical legacy was cemented. A German version was produced and sung by Ivo Lotion. A version was made by the 2 Tone ska band, The Selecter, featuring on their 2011 album, Made In Britain, but the single release was cancelled, out of respect, when it coincided with Winehouse's own death. A cover was also performed by Jacquie Lee, Season 5 finalist for reality singing competition, The Voice. On 25 June 2012, Ronson played a previously unheard and unmastered version of the song on BBC Radio 6.
Top 2 contestant of Season 10's Idols South Africa, Bongiwe Silinda wowed the judges and the audience in the most dramatic Theatre Week when she performed the song in the Top 31. This was the last performance the Top 31 had to do before they were put through to the Top 16 live shows. Bongi had the judges raving about her stripped down version of the song with a climatic end, rather contradictory to the original version. After she auditioned twice in one season, judge of the show, Unathi Msengana had said this after she had finished her performance: "I'm so glad you decided to join us again in Pretoria to give yourself a second chance. Beyonce did the song for Gatsby....she'd bow down to you after this performance." This saw Bongiwe alongside Vincent Bones, who performed Adorn by Miguel and Lize Mynhardt, who performed Love Story by Taylor Swift being dubbed the standout performers of the final round of theatre week, which also securely placed her in the Top 16 of the 10th historic season of Idols.
Beyoncé and André 3000 version
"Back to Black" was covered by American singer Beyoncé and American rapper André 3000 for the soundtrack of the 2013 film The Great Gatsby. The song premiered in April 2013 after several snippets of it appeared online and it was used in the trailer for the film. Jay Z, who served as an executive producer for the soundtrack, suggested the song to its producer Baz Luhrmann. It was the final song recorded for the album and was included after the producers wanted a darker moment on The Great Gatsby: Music from Baz Luhrmann's Film. Amy Winehouse's father Mitchell Winehouse reported that Beyoncé had not informed him about covering the song and requested that the income coming from it should be included in his Amy Winehouse Foundation. When the song was released, Winehouse criticized André 3000's singing saying that it should have been covered only by Beyoncé. However, Mark Ronson, the original producer of the song revealed that he was flattered and honored by the cover version.
Beyoncé and André 3000's cover is a slower version than the original with several lyrical modifications. It features a darker production with heavier instrumentation complete with a guitar and synthesizers, chopped and screwed elements and electronic beats. Upon its release, the song received mixed reviews from music critics who noted that the original version was already perfect to be further reworked; several critics praised its reworked arrangement while others criticized the singers' vocal performance calling it the most controversial song on the soundtrack.
Background and development
On 1 April 2013 it was announced by E! Online that American singer Beyoncé would cover the song with André 3000 for The Great Gatsbysoundtrack, set to be released on 7 May 2013.Baz Luhrmann, the director of the film, revealed that "Back to Black" was the final song to be included on the album. The inclusion of the song on the soundtrack was suggested by Beyoncé's husband and rapper Jay Z, who also served as its executive producer. "We were looking for, 'How do we have a darker moment?' and he said have a listen to this and he played it", commented Luhrmann who, after a few spins, confirmed it should appear on the album. Anton Monsted who served as a producer for the soundtrack, also talked about the placement of the cover of "Back to Black" on the track listing during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
We have to thank Jay Z for bringing this into the overall thinking. He worked with us on the second party in the movie. The first party is a gaudy, rich, Venus flytrap of a celebration designed to attract Daisy's interest by physically bringing the entire city of New York to Long Island. The second party is one that Daisy does attend, but at this point in the story, we were looking for a musical direction that alluded to darker things beneath the surface. We were looking for a song that would speak to the almost 'Sid and Nancy' addictive love that Gatsby and Daisy have found themselves re-engaging in. Everybody knows the Amy Winehouse version of this song, and I think this is a very interesting interpretation. It plunges you further into this particular kind of lovesickness. I think it works very well in the film, where it blends between a jazz recording that The Bryan Ferry Orchestra did and the version on the album with Beyoncé and André 3000. That combination helps to deepen the resonance of what the song is telling us.
On 2 April 2013, Amy Winehouse's father Mitchell Winehouse used his Twitter profile to reveal that Beyoncé had not informed him of her plans to cover the song and that he wanted income from the song to go to his Amy Winehouse Foundation. He wrote, "I don't know about this but what if Beyoncé gave £100,000 to the foundation? Do you know how many kids that would help? Just putting it out there." He later added, "Let me repeat. This is the first I have heard of Beyoncé doing Amy's [sic] song." Kia Makarechi of The Huffington Post noted that Beyoncé did not use the song as a personal record and thus it was "slightly curious" for Winehouse to request for her to pay out. Winehouse later used his Twitter account to write "I like Beyoncé's cover and have no probs." However, upon hearing the full-length track, he wrote on his Twitter profile, "I just heard the André part of "Back to Black". Terrible. He should have let Beyoncé do it all."
On 4 April 2013 a new trailer for the film featured previews of three songs from the soundtrack; a thirty-second preview of the cover of "Back to Black" was included among those songs. Chris Payne of Billboard magazine praised the cover, which according to him was made unique with the downtempo and EDM wobble. A ninety-second snippet of the song also appeared online on 21 April 2013 and was made available for streaming through the iTunes Store. A writer of Rap-Up magazine described it as a "dark and haunting collaboration" adding that it features "[André 3000] rapping his verse, while Queen B[eyoncé] burns slow with her seductive vocals." Sam Lansky of the website Idolator wrote that the cover was "a fairly sinister, gloomy affair" because of the lyrics, which according to him were connected with Amy Winehouse's death, and the film's noirish bent. He further commented that "it strikes us as an unusually dark side of King Bey[oncé], who's supposed to be literally the most poised human being alive". Speaking about the modification of the lyrics, he noted that it was "but a little odd" and concluded the review by saying, "It's eerie but cool, and a fitting tribute to Winehouse's legacy." The full version of the song premiered on Mark Ronson's East Village Radio show on 26 April 2013. Upon its release, Ronson, who co-wrote the original song, commented that it was a "wonderful take on our song" and added: "I'm flattered and honoured, I know Amy would be too."
The cover version of "Back to Black" has a slower tempo than the original. It also features a darker production and chopped and screwed elements with a dark, twisted mood and a hypnotizing dub beat. Charley Rogulewski of Vibe magazine commented that the cover version was like a heroin-laced outtake off of the Trainspottingsoundtrack. Eschewing the 1960s Wall of Sound style of the original, the remake takes a minimalist, synth-heavy approach, with an occasional, echoing guitar twang. Melinda Newman of the website HitFix noted that the cover version was more solemn than the original, with the guitar in the song "adding to the loneliness". Logan Smithson of the online magazine PopMatters commented that it also features heavier instrumentation. The 1960s pop string orchestration of the first version is exchanged for a "meatier, keyboard-fueled, big beat groove", as stated by Keith Murphy of Vibe magazine. Glenn Gamboa of Newsday noted that the cover was stripped down practically to an electronic pulse which he further compared with the "sweeping, dramatic, icy electronic music" that Luhrmann used in his film Romeo + Juliet.
The lyrics of the song were modified; they were reversed so it could function better as a duet. It opens with André 3000 rapping his verses on a scratchy, bare beat and dissonant instrumentation further playing with the rhythm of the lyrical phrasing. Beyoncé continues singing her part at the first minute and thirty seconds of the song. Instead of belting her verse out, she whispers with seductive and sultry vocals, while André 3000 "buzzes" and raps over a nostalgic Aquemini leaky faucet beat as stated by Rogulewski from Vibe. Newman of the website HitFix commented that Beyoncé's vocal performance contrasted André 3000's spoken lyrics.
Upon its release, the collaboration of "Back to Black" received mixed reviews by music critics. Critics discussed that the song was already "perfect" to be further reworked. A writer of the website Consequence of Sound commented that the cover was "an intriguing take on the sultry number, featuring a soft pulse of dub underneath the syrupy sing-talk of André and breathy croon a la Marilyn Monroe/Betty Boop from Queen B." Paula Mejía of the same website listed the song as a highlight on the album, adding that the singers "take an unsettling postmortem stab": "Oozing womps from the latter [Beyoncé] trickle into the ear slowly, mimicking that feeling when you're walking alone at night and have the suspicion you're being followed, but you're too freaked-out and cool to look behind you." Christina Lee of the website Idolator wrote in her review of the song that it was "a gloomier take on Southern hip-hop's codeine effect", comparing it with OutKast's album Aquemini (1998) reinterpreted for contemporary times. Charley Rogulewski of Vibe magazine commented that the cover was "a drugged-out slow burner in comparison to the doo-wop original, which boasted Winehouse's robust vocals". C. Vernon Coleman of XXL magazine simply described it as "dope". Describing it as a shift in Beyoncé's usual approach, Ann Powers of NPR noted that "[she] gets stuck in the 1950s, sounding far more like a torch singer than a blues queen" but added that it was not a problem since "Lurhmann's (sic) postmodernism has plenty of room for the juxtaposition of historic and current styles." She further added that André 3000 sings in a "dandyish snarl that's been off-putting to some, but his radical rearrangement of the song comes closer than anything else here to Lurhmann's (sic) own nearly surrealist aesthetic". Describing the cover as "distinguishable", Logan Smithson of PopMatters further commented, "Though the cover doesn't top Winehouse's original, it is good in its own right and feels right at home on Gatsby. Besides, who doesn't love hearing André 3000's voice?". Kelly Dearmore from the American Songwriter described the cover as "synthy [and] trippy", writing that the singers turn it into a "wondrously hypnotic effect, and in turn, setting the tone for the entire album by blending brash audacity with dark surrealism".
In a more mixed review, AllMusic's David Jeffries called the song an "icy cold reading" of the original. Nothing that it had a "lavish-yet-empty feeling", Aisha Harris from Slate magazine wrote in her review: "The song has the feel of a blurry stupor—fitting... for the dark undertones of The Great Gatsby, but not terribly satisfying outside that context. Winehouse's vocals had a visceral, emotional punch, whereas here, there's little connection between the sound of the voices and the meaning of the lyrics. 'Life is like a pipe/ And I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside' doesn't feel as meaningful coming from Beyoncé as it did from Winehouse." Thomas Conner from the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Beyoncé surprises by downshifting into "indie-chanteuse mode" for the cover which he noted that was sung "with a sad sexual tension that approaches torch song but never ignites it". Newman from the website HitFix wrote in her review that the original version was stronger than the cover and added that it felt like it was a song by André 3000 featuring Beyoncé as the song mainly featured his vocals. She finished her review by grading the cover with a B-side and wrote, "André 3000 and Beyoncé aren't afraid to rework the track and make it their own, for which they deserve credit, but their remake won't make anyone forget Amy's version." Jim Farber of Daily News wrote in his review that "unfortunately" Beyoncé only makes a cameo appearance in the song while André 3000 dominates with a "rank rap and a woeful vocal". Writing that it sounded "dull", Cameron Adams of Herald Sun added "it's got nice guitar work but the minimal remake is worth it only to hear Bey sing, 'I love blow and you love puff'".Paste magazine's Philip Cosores wrote that "'Back to Black' sees Jay Z sticking his wife with a pretty raw deal, with the male half of the duet getting the opening verse and the chorus virtually to himself, leaving Bey with scraps at the end."
Mark Beech from Bloomberg L.P. gave a negative review towards the cover, writing that Beyoncé and André 3000 "murdered" the original version and noted that F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the novel The Great Gatsby on which the film was based, would be "baffled" by it. Kathy McCabe from The Daily Telegraph wrote that the song was the most controversial musical moment from the soundtrack and added that it seemed "unrecognisable from the original, darker and so cut and pasted, it gives you the jitters after a couple of minutes". Keith Murphy of Vibe magazine described the cover version as the soundtrack's "weakest link", although he called it "credible". He added that Beyoncé sounds "way too pristine" on it and wrote, "Please avoid covering the late Amy Winehouse if you are unable to project her heartbreaking anguish." Stacy Lambe of VH1 panned the cover of "Back to Black" as "the biggest disappointment on the soundtrack". Another writer of the same website also gave a negative review for it, saying "I think the arrangement of this is sleepy and practically smothers the angst out of the song. Also, Beyoncé lives such a perfect life that she can't convey the same bitter pain in her voice that Amy could."
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- ^Winehouse 2012, pp. 68–69
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- ^Discogs.com - CD single
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In 2013, "Back to Black" was covered by Beyoncé (left) and André 3000 (right) for The Great Gatsby soundtrack.