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Why Amy Winehouse Was in Control Even as She Crashed

2 minute read

The controversial new Amy Winehouse documentary Amy—which opens in the U.S. on Friday, after a U.K. opening the previous week—takes a look at the singer’s rise to fame and subsequent addiction, which eventually led to her death.

Seen with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what happened to her only a few short years later, it can be hard to think about Winehouse’s talent without a “but.” The irony of her biggest hit, “Rehab,” now overshadows the song itself. But in 2008, at the height of her success, TIME’s Josh Tyrangiel described why it was important not to let her personal problems detract from the way her music was discussed:

Nothing inspires scorn like wasted fame—or kills nuance like a fire-engine-red bra. But to dismiss Winehouse as just another train wreck is to presume that she has no idea she’s off the rails, and this distinction matters when considering how to feel about her. Winehouse’s Back to Black is up for six Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, including one for Album of the Year. While the Grammys are notorious for their grandfatherly taste (she’ll be competing against Herbie Hancock, among others), they’re spot-on about Winehouse. On Back to Black she sounds like Dusty Springfield teleported into the hip-hop era. The songs—all of which move with the economy of old 45s and all of which Winehouse had a hand in writing—tell tight, complicated stories, but more important, they tell her stories.

From the first line of the album—”They tried to make me go to rehab/I said ‘No, no, no'”—Winehouse is in complete control of her out-of-control tale.

That control, of course, only took her so far.

After her 2011 death, her friend and collaborator Mark Ronson remembered her in TIME, and in doing so offered one potential source of command: “She … had an innate ability to come up with the insta-classic — a lyric or song title that you’ve never heard before but is so perfect and timeless that it feels as though it must have been around since the birth of pop music. She wasn’t trying to sound classic. She just was. It’s how her brain and soul were hardwired.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com