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Back to Black review: The cringeworthy Amy Winehouse biopic is too afraid of difficult questions

Despite strong performances from Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell as the late icon and her one-time husband Blake Fielder-Civil, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s controversial film tiptoes around judging anyone who isn’t part of the paparazzi – Blake and Amy’s father Mitch get off scot-free

Charlotte O'Sullivan
Tuesday 09 April 2024 14:40 BST
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It’s not trauma porn. This hugely controversial Amy Winehouse biopic has many faults, but can’t be accused of exploiting the “addiction-hell” of its subject, who died in 2011, age 27. In fact, filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson’s portrait of the artist as a young woman, starring the vocally competent Industry star Marisa Abela (doing her own singing), is so determined to be celebratory that it barely touches on Winehouse’s last year. The mood, by the end, is less boo-hoo than woohoo!

Clearly, Taylor-Johnson and writer Matt Greenhalgh (who worked together on the John Lennon story Nowhere Boy) want to set their project apart from Asif Kapadia’s award-winning 2015 documentary Amy, about the north London girl with the tsunami-powerful voice, whose self-destructive behaviour became a source of entertainment to the British and American press. I remember sobbing by the end of Amy. I had no need of a hankie during Back to Black.

Partly that’s because Abela’s Amy never seems like an underdog. The real Amy had bulimia from her teens onwards (by the time she reached her twenties, her purging – as much as her struggles with drugs and alcohol – meant she frequently looked skeletal). In the new film, we keep hearing about the bulimia, but Abela appears pretty much the same weight throughout. She’s also conventionally pretty (the spit of the young Rachel Weisz). Winehouse was gorgeously unconventional and had to fight to be recognised as sexy. Abela, though a decent enough actor, can’t quite get under Winehouse’s extraordinary skin.

Equally frustrating is the way Taylor-Johnson chooses to portray Blake Fielder-Civil, the “fit” guy who Winehouse obsessed over for years, and briefly married. Fielder-Civil’s culpability in Winehouse’s addiction has been a contentious subject for years, despite his confirmation that he “put up a weak resistance” when she asked to try heroin with him. In Back to Black, though, Blake (an insecure, occasionally moody, easily led cutie-pie, sweetly and seductively played by Jack O’Connell) doesn’t introduce Amy to class-A drugs. He introduces her to US girl group The Shangri-Las, leaving her smitten as he mimes along to “Leader of the Pack”, (thus helping to change the trajectory of her career; the epically retro vibe proves crucial to her second, multi-Grammy-winning album from which the film takes its name). Taylor-Johnson has said she didn’t want to demonise Blake. Fine. But there’s something queasy-making about turning him into the wind beneath Amy’s wings. The guy’s a mix of Heathcliff, Sid Vicious and Mary bloody Poppins.

As for Eddie Marsan’s Mitch Winehouse, think of him as the patron saint of optimistic dads. He initially says no to rehab for his daughter, but only because he’s such a proud parent and hopes his girl can handle herself. As soon as she says she’s ready, he says, “Let’s go!” He never pressures her into touring. And he certainly never exposes her to a Channel 4 camera crew filming the documentary My Daughter Amy (yes, that programme really exists). Once she’s a grown woman, he’s just there for snuggles, plus chats about the intoxicating joys of jazz.

Amy’s relationship with her “nan”, Mitch’s mum, Cynthia (Lesley Manville), is just as cosy. The only villains, in this narrative, are the paparazzi. Talk about an easy target. The news magnates, who made emotionally fragile celebs fair game, go unmentioned, as do all those members of the public who bought the papers and/or responded to click-bait footage. In years to come, you can imagine Back to Black screening on the TV, on Christmas Day, after a bumper episode of EastEnders. Never mind the bits where Amy says “bollocks”. For all the swearing, this sanitised biopic is about as punk as pulling a cracker.

Some of the jokes, admittedly, are pretty good. Like recent biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, Back to Black keeps up a steady supply of one-liners. Amy, after being told she stinks of booze and fags, says it’s her perfume, “Chanel number Pub”. When the police raid the flat and ask if there are any drugs in the house, Blake says, cheerfully, “No, think we done ’em all!” But unlike Winehouse’s wit (as displayed in her wickedly astute lyrics) such gags are there to make you smile, not gasp.

Abela in the Amy Winehouse biopic ‘Back to Black’ (Studio Canal)

What is startling is Winehouse’s aggression when drunk (one curb-side brawl feels particularly authentic) and the way her mood can change within seconds, for no particular reason. In the film’s best section, we watch Winehouse and Fielder-Civil get hitched in Miami and, later, swim naked in a pool, with Amy’s expression suddenly switching from blissed-out to stricken. Time and space get blurry as the action moves back to London, with Winehouse increasingly resembling a flamenco dancer who’s tumbled from the dark side of the moon. It’s in these immersive, off-kilter scenes, ironically, that she feels most like a real girl.

But melodrama always gets the upper hand (there’s a plot thread about Amy’s desire for a baby that is mawkish rather than moving). At several points, too, Winehouse is seen running for her life. And she’s often compared with animals (a small, caged bird and an intrepid London fox). The metaphors are so in your face they’re cringeworthy.

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Less wildlife and more of Winehouse’s musical collaborators would have been nice. Her interactions with world-famous producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson are fleeting, while hip-hop and soul legends Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Questlove have been erased from her history. Winehouse banters with her backing band, but doesn’t discuss making music with them. Winehouse, from all reports, was a team player, but that doesn’t come across. And while the big hits (“Rehab”, “Tears Dry on Their Own”, etc) provide pleasant listening, the most soulful ballad is provided by Nick Cave.

Back to Black is a fitfully enjoyable little package that will do wonders for the careers of Abela and O’Connell. But unlike Winehouse’s oeuvre, it’s not worth taking seriously. It’s just too afraid of the dark.

Dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan. Cert 15, 122 minutes.

‘Back to Black’ is in cinemas from 12 April

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