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Back to Black (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 28


Starring Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan, Harley Bird, Spike Fearn, Therica Wilson-Read, Bronson Webb, Ansu Kabia, Ryan O'Doherty, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Matilda Thorpe, Pete Lee-Wilson, Miltos Yerolemou, Daniel Fearn, Colin Mace, Francesca Henry, Tim Treloar and Michael S. Siegel.

Screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.

Distributed by Focus Features. 112 minutes. Rated R.

Amy Winehouse had the kind of short, tragic, musically brilliant, drug-addled life that lends itself to the idea of a terrific biopic. Maybe someday that fantastic film will come out. Until then, we have Back to Black, which takes a horribly complicated and messy life and tries to over-simplify and sand off the rough edges from it.

Which is a shame, because Marisa Abela does a terrific job at portraying the tragic singer, or at least she does the best that she could with the material she was given.

Abela also handles all of Winehouse’s vocals, which also points out the problem with making a film about a unique talent like Winehouse. Abela does have a terrific voice, but it’s hard – if not totally impossible – to completely sound like Amy Winehouse. But Abela tries her best, and good for her.

Back to Black obviously comes from a place of love, and thus skims over many of the more tabloid aspects of Winehouse’s life (at the same time they vilify the paparazzi completely). And perhaps to a certain extent that is okay, with such a dark story, maybe we do need a bit of light to shine through. However, it seems like the type of compromise that Winehouse herself would have never made.

In trying to put a bit of a happy face on the story, it also gives some of the survivors a little cover that they may not always deserve, particularly Winehouse’s father Mitch (as played by Eddie Marsan) and her ex-husband (and drug enabler) Blake Fielder-Civil (played by Jack O’Connell). Both characters come off as much more loving, supportive, and clear-headed than history tells us. Well, maybe the husband doesn’t exactly come off as supportive, but he does recognize that he is bad for her, and she would be better off without him. This all makes it obvious – if there was any question – that the family is behind the film.

Also, for a movie named after Amy Winehouse’s most famous album (well, honestly, she only released two albums and a few EPs in her lifetime), Back to Black pretty much ignores her musical career. Sure, she is shown performing live often enough, but the audience is given almost no information about the progression of her musical career. One moment she sings for the family and at the local pub, the next moment she has a record contract, the next moment she is an international sensation. Producer Mark Ronson, who was her collaborator on her biggest hits, is just namechecked once in the film and never actually appears in the movie.

This is even more confounding on this side of the pond, where Winehouse was never quite as huge as she had been in her native England. Yes, her album was a hit here, but she only had one single hit the top 40 charts (“Rehab”), although the title track and “Valerie” have since become well-known favorites too.

So, despite her storied struggle with drugs, her famously dysfunctional relationship with her ex-husband and her way-too-early death, there are a lot of biographical details still to be imparted for American audiences.

Unfortunately, Back to Black only does a fair job at telling that story.

Maybe we’ll never totally figure out the tragic mess that was Amy Winehouse’s short, tragic life. Still, I wish this film had worked a little harder to help us try to understand her. In fact, this lyric from “Rehab” explains Winehouse much better than anything in Back to Black can: “He said, ‘I just think you're depressed’ / This, me: ‘Yeah, baby, and the rest.’”

Back to Black somewhat does show that Winehouse was depressed. However, it sort of misses the last call on showing the rest. Is that worthy of an eccentric talent like Amy Winehouse? To quote her from “Rehab” again: “I said, no, no, no.”

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2024 All rights reserved. Posted: May 17, 2024.


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