Saturday, April 13, 2024


Marisa Abella (Industry) delivers a stunning central performance as Amy Winehouse in this new biopic of the singer. She captures Amy's caustic wit, her physical mannerisms, and most impressively, her spoken and singing voice.  Director Sam Taylor-Wood (NOWHERE BOY) tackles the audience's apprehension head on in an opening scene showing Winehouse's Jewish parental family singing together. Abela freestyles Fly Me To The Moon and the audience relaxes, safe in the knowledge that Abela's Amy is spot on. Her Amy is straightforward to the point of rudeness, full of energy and sheer talent. But also troubled way before she meets her much vilified husband Blake Fielder-Civil. She is already bulimic and alcohol dependent with a self-acknowledged streak of self-sabotage, particularly when it comes to men. This is something that Matt Greenhalgh's script, using her own lyrics, explores from the first scenes.

About forty minutes into the film, Amy's first album has been a breakout success but she has been told to restyle herself for America. This plays into all of the insecurities that have fed into her self-abuse. And at that moment we meet Jack O'Connell (UNBROKEN) as Blake Fielder-Civil. He is charming and fun and has a deep knowledge of music over which he and Amy can bond. It's another powerhouse performance. There's an immediate spark and we are swept up in young, heedless romance.  According to this version of the story, it was a genuine love affair on both sides at first, and while he was already using Class A drugs she stuck "only" to alcohol and weed. It's only when they reunite after a break-up that he was motivated more by her fame and money and ability to fund his smack habit.  Once inside prison, he cleans up and realises what's obvious to the rest of us - that this is a desperately toxic codependent relationship with competitive self-harm. He wants to break free. Fair enough. But it breaks Amy in the process.

Needless to say, this is a more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Fielder-Civil than we got from contemporary news reports, or from Asif Kapadia's superb 2015 documentary AMY. My only criticism of Kapadia is that he often creates pantomime villains in his films - whether Alain Prost in SENNA or Fielder-Civil and Mitch Winehouse in AMY.  Greenhalgh and Taylor-Wood may have swung the pendulum back too far in BACK TO BLACK but I really appreciate the attempt to treat humans as flawed real people. And we have to remember that Fielder-Civil was also a young man and an addict at the time. 

The whitewashing of Mitch Winehouse, played by the innately sympathetic Eddie Marsan, is probably going to be even more controversial.  In this film, he is portrayed as an indulgent father who is totally out of his depth when it comes to Amy's addictions. This kind of tracks with Amy's mother saying, in Kapadia's documentary, that when Amy told them about her bulimia they just kind of ignored it and hoped it would pass. We don't see the avaricious exploitative father of Kapadia's doc at all.

But let's not be fooled into thinking this film is a whitewashing of the brutality of addiction and bulimia.  Amy's descent into full blown class A drug addiction is shown explicitly, but never exploitatively. We see her ability to go clean for periods, but that she is, in the scripts words, always on edge, so that it doesn't take much to push her over. In this film, it's always heartbreak that does it - whether Fielder-Civil leaving her, or her inability to get pregnant and have the stable family life she craved.  The narrative is convincing, and Abela's central performance is heartbreaking.  I love that we spent so much time with Amy and her beloved Nan (Leslie Manville) and saw that Amy's heart was rooted in jazz. I felt I had an understanding of her deep familial musical heritage that I didn't get from Kapadia's doc.  And this is, I think, one of the most important things that we need to know about her.

BACK TO BLACK is rated R and has a running time of 122 minutes. It went on release in the UK today and goes on release in the USA on May 17th.

No comments:

Post a Comment