Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Back to Black

Director: Sam-Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Marisa Abela, Jack O' Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan, Pete Lee-Wilson, Thelma Ruby, Matilda Thorpe
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)   

In Sam Taylor-Johnson's Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black, everything clicks into place for the film's lead, who reminds us just how little we do know about the late English singer-songwriter's beginnings. Putting aside what was covered in 2015's acclaimed documentary, Amy, there's a strangeness to initially seeing her without the beehive hair and tattoos that shaped a unique persona matched only by the talent itself. And much of this is found in Marisa Abela's performance, even well before Winehouse skyrockets to worldwide fame. 

The most perplexing aspect of Matthew Greenhalgh's script is how it avoids casting blame for the singer's death, almost hoping we're absorbed enough in her highs and lows to overlook it. Of course, they'll always be skeptics nursing Dewey Cox hangovers and refusing to give any musical biopic the time of day. But as a respectable entry in that detested and mocked genre, this at least focuses on a more contemporary artist whose legacy hasn't yet been exhausted by a myriad of screen dramatizations. And while it's odd referring to an artist whose breakthrough album was released nearly two decades ago as "contemporary," it's at least a designation Winehouse easily earns. 

Raised in a Jewish, musically inclined home by father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), Amy Winehouse (Abela) is performing at local pubs when her vocal talents catch the attention of manager Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), leading to a contract with Island Records. But prior to her debut album's 2003 release, Amy takes a step back after creatively clashing with the label, soon meeting and falling for charismatic video producer Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O' Connell). 

Between Amy's alcoholism, bulimia and violent outbursts and Blake's cocaine addiction, their rocky relationship seems doomed from the start. That and an unexpected tragedy provides the groundwork for Amy's universally acclaimed sophomore album, "Back to Black," which catapults her to critical and commercial success. With it come unpleasant consequences, as she spirals into full blown drug addiction that even a stint in rehab and a period of sobriety can't rescue her from.

While this follows a strict chronological trajectory that might provide further ammo for those tired of the format, it's also an effective snapshot of a relatively brief, unexplored flicker in time. Due to this, it avoids coming across as a history lesson that crams decades of a person's life into two hours, skipping years and events to fit a regimented framework. More disciplined in staying the course, this rarely feels like an exploitive collection of her lowest points.

Because Amy's brief but memorable ascent feels as if it occurred yesterday, there's an immediacy to the story that's more culturally relevant than usual. Having paved the way for Adele and the many other British soul singers who've emerged since, the experience of watching becomes oddly inseparable from the hypothetical question of how the rest of her career would have turned out.

Abela is tremendous in the role, all the way from the opening scene of Amy reminiscing with her grandmother to when she eventually implodes later on. The huge surprise is that the actress does her own singing, faring unusually well given the insurmountable challenge of replicating Winehouse's unmistakable vocal stylings and stage presence. The elephant in the room is how the film handles Amy's addiction, contradicting much of what's been reported. If her substance abuse issues have long been tied to Blake's toxic influence, this paints a far different picture, with him even controversially painted as a victim at various points. 

The pair's initial meeting might be the film's best sequence with O'Connell's finding just the right blend of dangerous sleaze and charm, as we wait for Blake to emerge as the monstrous, abusive instigator we've heard so much about. And though he's far from a positive influence and destructive in his own right, that doesn't really materialize here. Instead, Amy just can't seem to quit him, and while a refusal to go to rehab results in her most iconic hit, by the time she actually gets there, it's too late. Eddie Marsen's Mitch is a constant presence as her dad/manager, in denial and overwhelmed by the harsh reality of his daughter's situation.

Given the family's involvement in this production, it is one of the more sympathetic portrayals of an artist lost to addiction, sidestepping the same tawdry treatment Amy received from the media while she was alive. That the movie captures a certain authenticity can be attributed to an actress who foregoes outright impersonation to embody an insecure family girl with a giving heart who briefly became the biggest pop star on the planet. The hows and whys are sometimes frustratingly murky, but Taylor-Johnson gets a lot right in exploring the gap that separated who Amy was from what the public perceived her to be.                     

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