Moving Pictures
May 17, 2024, 06:26AM

Winehouse Redeemed

Back to Black isn’t the disaster that its detractors claim.

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The early word on Back to Black, the new biopic of the late singer Amy Winehouse, was dire.

It’s not bad. Its greatest offense is probably the failure to break free of biopic convention and its decision to let one particular character off the hook. Sam Taylor-Johnson directed the film reasonably well; she also made the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie (i.e., the only watchable one in the series). But it features a fantastic lead performance by actress Marisa Abela, and its music handling is excellent across the board. I don’t see how Back to Black is any more offensive or exploitative than any other biopic of a musician who’s dead.

Amy Winehouse, a Jewish woman from the Camden section of London, broke through with her 2006 album, also called Back to Black, which won a truckload of Grammy Awards that year. Winehouse had a unique look—a beehive hairdo, heavy eye makeup, visible tattoos—and a sound unlike anything of the time, heavily influenced by the Black jazz singers of previous eras. And it was her voice that drove her success more than anything else.

Throughout her brief run of fame, Winehouse battled drug addiction, bulimia, and mental illness while also engaged in a whirlwind romance with charming but toxic lout Blake Fielder-Civil (played, not nearly scuzzily enough, by Jack O’Connell). The scene of their first meeting in a bar is the best-assembled scene of the film and feels like something from the director of Fifty Shades. Winehouse died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning at 27.

Winehouse’s story was previously told in Amy, a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Asif Kapadia that won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, even though it’s not the type of film that typically wins that award. Kapadia’s film masterfully assembled archival footage, balancing stage performances, Winehouse’s family life and turbulent relationship with Fielder-Civil, and her addiction and death. The new film covers all that, if not as balanced. Abela, best known for the excellent HBO show Industry, does a fantastic job in a nearly impossible role. She sings herself and is believable in the on-stage moments.

While Back to Black never feels like a beat-for-beat remake of Walk Hard, it does lean on familiar beats, most notably the scene where she fights with record executives who don’t believe in her sound; she ignores their advice, except for the part about ditching her guitar when performing on stage.

There are decisions that I quibble with, starting with saving her biggest hit, “Rehab,” for close to the end—the documentary deployed it multiple times—and the omission of one of her best songs, “You Know I'm No Good.” There’s also little development of Winehouse’s relationship with her mother.

The one real difference is that while the Amy documentary depicted her father, Mitch, as fame-hungry and preoccupied with a reality show, Back to Black shows him (played by Eddie Marsan) as a concerned and benevolent father. While they didn’t produce the film in a self-serving way, in the tradition of Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor, it was made with their cooperation, which was likely the only way to get the rights to all the music.

It’s not better than Kapadia’s film, but Back to Black isn’t the disaster that its detractors claim.


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