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Really? Another biopic about a drugged out musician?

Let me guess. The protagonist has a rough time making it to the "big time" but once there feels lonely, and isolated and sadly turns to drugs which leads to their downfall. I'm on the edge of my seat.

Only one problem, these folks off-stage are narcissistic and boring! I can't wait to watch the movie.

That is except Nigel Tufnel.

‘Back to Black’ Review: Amy Winehouse’s Songs and Struggles

Marisa Abela plays the Grammy-winning British singer in this vivid, pain-filled biopic directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.

By Kyle Smith, WSJ

May 16, 2024

Like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse made her art a continuing public presentation of her suffering, and like Cobain, she died at age 27. Unlike Cobain, she matched her lyrics to a peppy, soulful neo-Motown sound—rakish saxophones and prancing percussion. “Back to Black,” a phrase that pops up in the fall issues of shallow fashion magazines, was for her a confession of the deep despair into which she was often drawn. It’s an apt title for a dark biopic that weighs the contradictions that defined her short life, which ended in a severe case of alcohol poisoning.

Marisa Abela nails the role with a deeply felt portrayal of Winehouse, a working-class London girl who is sleeping on a mattress on the floor when she is discovered at 16. A scout (Sam Buchanan) at Simon Fuller’s management firm calls to express interest after hearing her demo, and she already exhibits an awe-inspiring level of swagger.

Winehouse, referring to some of the company’s best-known clients, scoffs: “I ain’t no f— Spice Girl.” Her idols are Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Lauryn Hill.

Winehouse craves attention, yet her nerves frazzle when she has to appear on stage. She adopts a beehive hairdo out of the early ’60s that clashes with her 21st-century body ink, and sings upbeat bops about the most dire internal crises. As written by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, who previously collaborated on a poignant look at the young John Lennon in the feature “Nowhere Boy,” the film is detailed, vivid, enthralling—and necessarily full of pain. The performances are top-notch, led by Ms. Abela, who does her own singing in an amazing re-creation of Winehouse’s muscular soul vocals.

With its linear and literal narrative, “Back to Black” employs a restrained (sober would be the wrong word) style to recap Winehouse’s life, sticking with chronological order and such conventions as showing the real-life inspiration for a piece of art, then its creative outcome. One boyfriend (Ryan O’Doherty) is stunned when she sings in a club what turned out to be her first single, “Stronger Than Me,” with such withering lines as “Always have to comfort you every day / But that’s what I need you to do, are you gay?”

Her best-known number, “Rehab,” had a refrain that initially sounded cheeky but later became haunting: “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, ‘No, no, no.’” It wins the Grammys for Song and Record of the Year in a triumphant moment that shines a light on a completely different path Winehouse might have taken. But she had just emerged from a program to treat her alcoholism and drug abuse, and her behavior was like tossing chum to tabloid sharks. Though the media didn’t cause Winehouse’s downfall, Ms. Taylor-Johnson takes us inside the invasive feel of being swarmed by paparazzi who understood that on any given night out Winehouse would likely furnish them with photogenic self-humiliation.

At the core of the film is the story of how Winehouse’s substance problems grew much worse after she met a roguish chancer named Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell excels in the role). Their broken relationship inspired the “Back to Black” album and song, but the pair subsequently reunited and impulsively married, on a whirlwind trip to Miami. It would be easy to blame Fielder-Civil for her spiral of doom—celebrating their union, they get fast food for room service and he lovingly gives her a crack pipe—but the film avoids reductionism. She drinks to celebrate when he’s there but also drinks to ease the pain when he isn’t. When he’s imprisoned for beating up a pub owner, he tells her that his therapist has explained how the pair are in a toxic co-dependency and that it would be better to split up. If the lingo seems out of place for a blue-collar bloke, it’s hard to disagree with the diagnosis.

The 2015 documentary “Amy” suggested that Winehouse’s uneven relationship with her father, Mitch, was partially responsible for her lack of self-control, but Ms. Taylor-Johnson’s feature (made with the blessing of her family) establishes the loving bond between Amy and her dad (Eddie Marsan), who even takes her to rehab (in contradiction to how he is described in the song). An equally important bond was the one with her “Nan,” Cynthia (Lesley Manville), which comes across with great warmth and tenderness.

There were other sources of despair, too, such as Winehouse’s failure to conceive a child, as she dearly wished to do with Fielder-Civil. The tornado wreckage of her life can’t be reduced to a single cause. Nor is it clear what anyone could have done to stop her from destroying herself. That may frustrate some who would like to pinpoint a villain. But lives are messy and complicated, and Winehouse’s more than most. “Back to Black” honors her by being honest about her.

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