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A Refreshingly Honest Look At The Life Of Amy Winehouse

For her ‘unofficial’ 2009 John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Johnson had so little music to work with that the opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” pretty much had to carry the whole movie. You might think that history would repeat for Back to Black, the short but fast-lived story of Amy Winehouse, who rose to international fame in her teens and never saw 28, never mind 30. Surprisingly, the Winehouse estate is all in, and although one might argue that the singer’s trainwreck notoriety has been slightly snow-washed to protect the living, there’s still a surprisingly hard edge here, in a rare film that gives rock’n’roll agency to a woman for once, like a reverse-angle Sid & Nancy.

In a way, any music biopic is off to a bad start, since there’s always going to be the curse of symmetry: everything must square with what we already know, and fill in some blanks for those that don’t. Back to Black is no exception in that regard, but it’s understandable — how do you explain a teenage London girl who’s inspired by Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Charles Bukowski, Lauryn Hill and Charlie Parker unless she tells you? Refreshingly, however, it is free of the curse of timestamping (there’s no “Glastonbury: 2007”), which may be a hurdle outside the UK, where even non-music fans saw the whole tragedy writ not just large but played out in excruciating real time.

What not be immediately apparent is that Back to Black is the story as seen through the singer’s own eyes, which is a very smart way of dodging the bullets that accompany any attempt to tell her rise-and-fall story. Although there is a LOT of foreshadowing in Matt Greenhalgh’s script (when her beloved Nan refuses a cigarette, you know exactly what’s coming), this isn’t a retread of Asif Kapadia’s almost forensic documentary Amy, which turned the tables on the accepted narrative of Winehouse as willing tabloid fodder. Instead, it actually indulges some of her self-sabotaging behavior, which may seem reckless but doesn’t seem to have tarnished any of the male members of the 27 club.

In that way, Back to Black isn’t the musical equivalent of Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, despite a surprisingly unobtrusive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. This isn’t a case of being careful what you wish for, or yet another boring story about how the music industry chews up young talent and spits it out. When Simon Fuller’s 19 management company come calling, Winehouse is not impressed. “I ain’t no f*cking Spice Girl,” she snarls, and the anger rings surprisingly true (although she did later sign with them).

It’s a measure of Winehouse’s accelerated life that it only takes 20 minutes to take us from a family party to her debut album and the first blush of fame. Even then, she is headstrong, stonewalling her management’s insistence that she stop playing her guitar onstage (although she did later drop it altogether) and taking time out to life her life and find new material for songs from that lived experience (although one of her biggest hits was a cover of The Zutons’ song “Valerie” in 2007). Interestingly, all these contradictions start to add up, especially when Winehouse goes from saying, “Drugs are for mugs,” to smoking crack cocaine, which is quite radical in itself for a biopic but also signals, in a very honest way, that we are never going to get to the bottom of this story.

The meat of the film, but not the focus, is Winehouse’s relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who gets off so very, very lightly. Played by Jack O’Connell, “Blakey” is the catalyst that sparks the singer’s very public descent into drink and drug-addled infamy (“You’ve got an eye for the bad boys,” says Nan, which is putting it mildly). But, again, Taylor-Johnson plays an interesting game with the truth here; it’s all very well to wonder where the adults were — and her naïve father Mitch pays off a lot of bad press in that regard, thanks to a very touching performance by Eddie Marsan — but these decisions were her own, and Taylor-Johnson makes that a tentpole, which — again — runs counter to the sexist “candle in the wind” narrative that grows up around so-called “difficult” female artists.

At the heart of it is relative newcomer Marisa Abela, who excels when she’s free of delivering expositional biopic dialogue and just being Amy Winehouse (a brief, verité-style sequence on the streets of Manhattan is quite breathtaking). In those moments, we get a sense of Amy Winehouse on the rise, a superhero origins story in which certain elements coalesce to produce the elegantly surly, coifed and tatted icon represented on the poster (although the film hedges its bets as to whether the famous beehive was inspired by The Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss or The Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector).

Given the material, Back to Black bows out on an unexpectedly minor key, which is probably better than a queasy Queen of Hearts payoff. In that respect it’s an unusual film, in that it doesn’t quite boil down to any one thing: it’s not about fame, it’s not about money, it’s not (really) about addiction. It does, however, paint an unexpectedly complex portrait of an artist who, over the years, has largely been portrayed in broad and patronizing strokes, much like the tattoo of Betty Boop she wore on her back. The musical biopic format doesn’t quite do it justice, but it would make one hell of an opera.

Title: Back To Black
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenwriter: Matt Greenhalgh
Cast: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville
Rating: R
Running time: 2 hr 2 min

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