Back to Black Review | This is Your Life

by Andrew Parker

Although it hews closely to musician biopic conventions in terms of staging and pacing, the work and life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse comes to vivid life in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black. The story of a generational talent who lived life as hard as she sang, Back to Black has an arc that lends itself perfectly to standard biopic trappings, but Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh have found a way to stay true and empathetic to a subject who was often her own worst enemy. It’s a film that never backs down from harsh truths and often finds its biggest moments of poignancy in small moments of joy and triumph rather than merely rehashing all of Winehouse’s well regarded highs and lows.

The brief, but highlight packed career of Amy Winehouse has been well documented, both in journalistic examinations of her life and work (including an outstanding documentary) and in the gutter skimming tabloids. Proud Camden native Winehouse made a name for herself by using her powerhouse voice to deliver jazzy, lusciously arranged songs that sounded like they were beamed in from a bygone generation. She stuck to her guns proudly, defended her sound, and never pretended to be some sort of pop princess. She was also criticized for being a known alcoholic and for carrying on a toxic, co-dependent relationship with Blake-Fielder Civil, and her life ended tragically at the all-too-young age of 27.

Winehouse is brought to startlingly accurate life on screen by Marisa Abela, who delivers one of the finest depictions of a well known famous person ever attempted on screen. In terms of capturing Winehouse’s bravado, vulnerabilities, cadence, and mannerisms, Abela’s performance is both studious and effortlessly spontaneous. Abela makes the viewer believe that Amy is capable of anything at any time, be it revelling in excess or letting her explosive temper get the better of her. Her energy is matched nicely by Jack O’Connell, who also has the delicate task of finding compassion for someone with frequently off-putting, self-destructive tendencies. They bring fire, passion, and a great deal of humanity to people who were scrutinized, demonized, and often misunderstood. Regardless of one’s feelings on their lives, Back to Black offers both of them some well earned dignity.

Moreover, Johnson and Greenhalgh (the latter of whom has covered similar biopic ground with the likes of Johnson’s Nowhere Boy and Anton Corbijn’s Control) know that the viewer has seen a movie like Back to Black before, and that Winehouse’s rise and demise is still fresh in the memory of the public. The filmmakers know what’s expected of them when it comes to a Winehouse biopic, but they also don’t want to insult the audience’s intelligence. Sure, there are more than a few moments here where life altering events are illuminated by metaphorical signposts in unsubtle fashion, but less than many other crowd rousing films about musicians these days. Back to Black isn’t afraid to “play the hits,” both literally and figuratively, but Johnson and Greenhalgh show far more concern and interest in Winehouse the person, rather than Winehouse the legend.

Instead of offering a cursory, encyclopedic overview of Winehouse, Johnson looks intently at how environment, circumstance, and personal relationships shape a human being. Whenever Winehouse visits some of her favourite haunts both inside and outside of Camden, Johnson conveys a sense of wonder and intimacy that makes the viewer see what makes these spaces and places so special and inspiring. Amy’s successes are shown as a result of hard work and believing in one self, but her backslides and scars are treated empathetically and without judgment, even in her darkest moments of addiction and crisis. The film also gives a lot of voice to the people who shaped Winehouse’s personality the most, not just Blake, but also her vagabond manager father (Eddie Marsan) and her adoring and once famously glamorous nan (Lesley Manville). Winehouse might’ve cultivated an image of being an edgy, tough talking iconoclast, but the way she conducts herself with those she loves and respects is thoughtfully fleshed out here, and with only a minimum of speechifying and obvious dialogue.

Back to Black is a film that’s operating from a deficit, regardless of how good or bad one thinks it is. Musical biopics haven’t been critical darlings for quite some time now, and Winehouse’s career is so recent that Back to Black feels like it’s coming too soon for anyone to have an objective opinion about it. And while it isn’t a top tier example of the genre, Johnson’s film is a fitting and thoughtful tribute to the person at the heart of it. Winehouse lived for melodrama both in her music and personal life, and as such the film makes no excuses for any forays into such territory. There are plenty of cliches to be found, but never a blunting of who Winehouse was and what she represented within the music industry. For a biopic about an icon taken from the world far too soon, Back to Black never overplays its own sense of importance, but rather focuses on bringing Amy Winehouse to life through the power of a stellar, award calibre performance and the fine details that make life worth living and loss worth feeling.

Back to Black opens in theatres on Friday, May 17, 2024.

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