/ 21 April 2024

Don’t expect deep dive into drug darkness in Winehouse biopic

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Amy Winehouse. (Photo by Mark Holloway/Redferns)

Maybe it was because British soul singer Amy Winehouse was in my headphones and not in the newspapers I was reading at the time of her brief but brilliant career, that I was pleasantly surprised by the new biopic, Back to Black. It is named after her second and final album which was released in 2006 and which features her major hit, Rehab.

I was expecting the worst of the movie because most of the British critics I read beforehand were merciless. “Shallow” and “the latest injustice meted out to Winehouse”, according to The Guardian; “… so bad it made me gasp in horror”, gagged the Evening Standard’s reviewer; The Independent reckons that “unlike Winehouse’s oeuvre, it’s not worth taking seriously. It’s just too afraid of the dark.” And Empire warns it “ultimately tells us less than we already know”. Unlike me, these critics undoubtedly consumed the Winehouse real-life soap opera so relentlessly covered by the British media when she was still alive.

Multi-Grammy award-winning Winehouse died age 27 of alcohol poisoning in 2011 after a very public, drug-driven downward spiral that was brutally recorded in a blow-by-blow fashion by the British tabloids. I knew about her desperately sad implosion but, unlike many people in that muggy island, I didn’t pay enough attention to who the villains were in that tragedy. 

We are talking her father, Mitch — accused of only arriving on the scene when she was successful — and her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil — he reportedly introduced her to heroin — who both come across as human, but far from faultless in Back to Black (well played by Eddie Marsan and Jack O’Connell, respectively). The film’s critics think they got off far too lightly.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson is clearly a Winehouse fan, and that is how the story is told — gently, perhaps naively but with compassion. We are introduced to a young Amy, played superbly by Marisa Abela, singing like a jazzy angel at a family do in London; the special bond with her grandma Cynthia is made clear. 

Her jazz-loving nan asks Amy ahead of her visit to New York to go to the famous Birdland Club to “pay respect” to saxophonist Charlie Parker. But she also cautions her granddaughter that the coroner who examined Parker’s body when he died at the age of 34, initially thought the jazzman, who was addicted to heroin for two decades, was 60. If only Winehouse had listened to her wise old grandmother.

As a music fan, I found it poignant when the film showed her outside Birdland, and also inside Ronnie Scott’s celebrated jazz club in London. Talking about location, the Camden suburb where Winehouse lived also features prominently and authentically.

And about the music: it is probably what played a large part of my enjoyment of Back to Black. Abela’s interpretation of Winehouse’s singing voice is exceptional. She had to learn to sing from scratch and how to play guitar. It also helps that she resembles the real Winehouse both in looks, language and mannerisms.

In addition to Winehouse’s fabulous music, the great soundtrack featured Thelonious Monk, Minnie Riperton, Willie Nelson, Billie Holiday, and The Shangri-Las — this US girl group’s hit, Leader of the Pack, played a key part in the story.

It is not that Taylor-Johnson is sparing us Winehouse’s decline. Far from it. But don’t expect a detailed dive into the druggy darkness. If you want a documentary record of that, Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary, Amy, comes highly recommended.

If you don’t expect Amy from Back to Black you are in for a treat — unlike one of the critics who was not impressed with how much weight Abela had lost for her role as Amy: “… no one in this film is skinny enough”, he insisted.

I wasn’t surprised Taylor-Johnson decided to end the film on a high (no pun intended) after Winehouse, fresh from rehab, had won her record five Grammys by 2008. As a fan and filmmaker it is her prerogative to end her story where she wants to. 

She takes care of Winehouse’s death on 23 July 2011 with captions on the screen, a device that is often used with cinematic biographies. It is clearly her decision that Back to Black was going to be a celebration of Winehouse.

Early in the film Winehouse reads from the application she filled in for the Sylvia Young Theatre School when she was just 12. “I want people to hear my voice and forget their troubles for five minutes.” 

Although Back to Black won’t win any major film awards, it certainly brought me two hours and two minutes of pure enjoyment on a gloomy Monday afternoon. 

Three questions. Should you watch the movie?

Will you be reminded of Winehouse’s brilliance?

Did Back to Black make me want to listen to Winehouse’s music again after the movie?

I say yes, yes, yes.