James Phelan reviews Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biographical drama film based on the life of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.

Back to Black is a soulful and sensitive portrait of a true artist bristling with energy and imbued with real affection for its subject. So much affection transpires that the filmmakers may have gone out of their way to pull a few punches in order to enshrine a legend rather than overburdening the audience with some harsher realities about the darker side of fame and addiction. 

Much like the film, we don’t have to focus on the negative when there is so much to be positive about. Chief among these is the sensational performance of Marisa Abela in the lead role of Amy Winehouse. Early moments with her show the emergence of an irrepressible talent illustrated by simple scenes like Amy going from the fringes of a family singsong to centre stage amongst her tight knit clan by belting out a soul standard that is far from standard. 

There’s a fine line between adopting the mannerisms of a person and giving a mannered performance but Abela excels at sketching Amy with warmth and depth. There’s a heady cocktail of emotions bubbling under the surface, certainly in the juxtaposition between the singer’s natural swagger and ego balanced against her vulnerability as an artist and a person. Abela may be a full year away from acting award season but you can certainly see this film and her glowing role in it getting traction in the musical side of the Golden Globes categories for instance.

The film charts how Amy poured the pain of her turbulent personal life into her art and emerged with classic songs that defined a feeling and an era. While illuminating the creative process behind the titular album, it’s interesting who the film chooses to omit from this recounting of the singer’s odyssey through acclaim and fame. For instance, mega producer Mark Ronson is only mentioned fleetingly in passing rather than appearing onscreen. Surely this was a key creative collaborator and close friend from the moment they first met. It just seems an odd oversight.

Elsewhere the film is understandably less interested in her debut album ‘Frank’ but frankly I wanted to know more about this formative period. That first album was a huge critical success garnering her rave reviews and songwriting awards. It was far from a failure and without it, the world would never have gotten ‘Back to Black’. Throughout, the film makes generous room for her most famous songs giving proceedings a slight greatest hits jukebox vibe. 

The film has such a genial glow that it’s a rising tide that raises even those usually painted in unsympathetic hues in Amy’s life story into warmer and more rounded creations. Amy’s father Mitch and her lover and later husband Blake have shipped a lot of blame for their actions (and perhaps inactions) in other iterations of her story but less so here. Perhaps this is a strength of fictional filmmaking that director Sam Taylor-Johson is harnessing. The power to try and understand a situation from everyone’s perspective. This is a world where everybody hurts.

Overall, it’s almost certain that heavily sanitised but handsomely rewarded bio pics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman provided some of the touchstones for the approach taken here. Sure, the alcohol addiction and press intrusion are rendered in a raw and responsible way but the film has clearly made a decision not to sink into the squalor and grim desolation of all of her vices equally. The film ends with Amy backlit like an angel during a sober stretch of recovery. It’s a perfectly valid approach to take but this is a film that chooses to be mostly unconcerned with the devils that plagued Amy. As such it places her voice amongst the heavens without really depicting the hell she went through at times. 

Back to Black is in cinemas from 12th April 2024.

 

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