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Film Review: Back to Black

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s luscious bio-pic of the talented and tragic Amy Winehouse.

Attempts to avoid the sensational by centring on the person behind the star rather than the tabloid caricature she became, but it doesn’t go far enough.  
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The name Amy Winehouse conjures the aural and the visual at once. No one – certainly not in the noughties and possibly ever – sang jazz pop with such smoky individuality, and no one’s style in that time was more vintage-signature than hers. The singer was feisty, evidenced by the lyrics she wrote in an inimitable mix of street-Camden, London, and 60s girl-band swagger, and by the tatts that decorated her bird-thin body. Unfortunately, anyone old enough to have remembered the singer’s brief and wild rise to fame will also recall the trainwreck that her life was between the years of 2003 to her untimely death in 2011, thanks to relentless documentation by the tabloids. Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh says of the new Winehouse biopic Back to Black, ‘I was very adamant that it would all be through Amy’s point of view,’ meaning the film worked from her autobiographical lyrics and press interviews. In steering away from sensationalist depictions of spiralling-addict-Winehouse, the film is a threefold love story.

Opening with a warm and festive family gathering, Amy (Marisa Abela) is awe-struck by the stories her nan (Lesley Manville) tells her about the gritty glamour of jazz in the 50s as she’d experienced it, and after performing an impromptu Fly Me to the Moon with her father (Eddie Marsan), she returns home to her bedroom to pick up her guitar and write some sultry and sassy lyrics. Immediately we see Amy’s first loves intwined: that of family and that of music. Her third love enters in the most evocative scene in the film, when she’s hanging out day-drinking at a local pub and meets Blake (Jack O’Connell). They are clearly both ‘of a type’ and the attraction is immediate, their chemistry pushing well beyond the boundary of drunken flirtations. Indeed, he would become the muse and their relationship fodder for her phenomenal album Back to Black.

True to capturing Winehouse’s unique talent and working-class charisma, Back to Black neither romanticises the singer’s addiction or vilifies the junkie-lover fans blamed for her death. The fact that Amy wants and can never seem to fill that want doesn’t demand a traumatic backstory; her addiction as portrayed in the film just always is. And we see Blake as Amy did: he’s charming and fun, has a bad-boy sense of style and is the same kind of messed-up as she is, so they can get loaded together. It’s true love, and the rest can get stuffed. It’s all very surface. Though we see the music sensation bleeding in front of the paparazzi during the worst of times, it is only because that’s what happened, not because it’s part of who she necessarily was. After seeing the film, I’m still unsure who she was.

This film – director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s return to music after her 2009 debut Nowhere Boy about the teenage years of John Lennon – respectfully takes off the rose-coloured glasses that so many biopics indulge in, and avoids the tortured genius clichés, by offering up the singer under her biggest influences: family, music and Blake Fielder-Civil. That said, the film is full of missed opportunities.

Polly Morgan, director of photography, plays it safe with a steady stream of head and shoulder shots, when fame, drugs and true love might suggest more experimental, trickier positions. Likewise, a less straightforward editing style and a framework that goes beyond the chronological could’ve given Amy’s life more depth and meaning, so it’s likely the film won’t be remembered for innovation or clever panache. It’ll be remembered for Marisa Abela’s performance. And for the music.

Original bass player in Winehouse’s band, Dale Davis, and her backing singer Ade Omotayo were musical consultants on the film, and though the original band couldn’t be onscreen as they’re too old now to play their younger selves, they are the band playing in the recording of the film’s live performances. Also noteworthy is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis composing the underscore. Abela and the music won’t save the film from its even-handedness, but they’re enough to make the experience of seeing this film a solid one. 

Reviewed by Heather Taylor-Johnson

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