Back to Black

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Back to Black
dir Sam Taylor-Johnson
scr Matt Greenhalgh
prd Alison Owen, Debra Hayward, Nicky Kentish Barnes
with Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan, Bronson Webb, Harley Bird, Ansu Kabia, Matilda Thorpe, Ryan O'Doherty, Pete Lee-Wilson
release UK 12.Apr.24,
US 17.May.24
24/UK 2h02

oconnell marsan manville
See also:
Amy (2015)

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Skilfully written by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, this biopic takes the path of least resistance through the life of Amy Winehouse. Wonderfully centred around her musicality and sparky personality, the film is a celebration anchored in a terrific performance by the gifted Marisa Abela. Yet while it explores Winehouse's turbulent romantic and addiction issues, the film tries to rewrite serious core issues that have been well-documented.
Born into a musical family, Amy (Abela) takes after her beloved grandmother Cynthia (Manville) as a jazz performer, progressing from pub nights in Camden Town to a record deal by age 18. As her star rises, she meets the laddish Blake (O'Connell), launching an on-off relationship that spans respective addictions to alcohol and cocaine, and joint use of crack. Then her second album, 2006's Back to Black, takes the world by storm. Meanwhile, Blake ends up in prison for assault, and Amy goes through rehab. She died of alcohol poisoning at age 27 in 2011.
Character-focussed storytelling brings these people to life, beautifully played by a fully invested cast. Scenes are nicely grounded in real-life settings that add telling details, offering insight and creating some deeper themes that resonate strongly. Yet while the film explores Amy's longing to have children, it reframes her relationship with her divorced parents (Marsan and Cowan) into something that feels rather simplistic, especially for anyone who saw them describe it in their own words in Asif Kapadia's definitive 2015 doc Amy.

Fully inhabiting the role, Abela's performance is immersive and powerfully involving, extending to her simmering vocals on the songs. She makes Amy a person we care about, funny and bursting with life, and also a thoughtful young woman with a poet's perspective. Her connection with O'Connell's casually charismatic Blake has an electric charge to it, alternating between sweet and scary. Marsan and Manville lend their considerable talents to Mitch and Cynthia, offering some brief shadows within performances that are largely warm and caring.

Rather than forensically exploring the reasons behind Amy's tragic death, this film opts to major on her life and music. So it remains entertaining and engaging, with Abela's extraordinary turn gripping the attention. The problem is that this leaves enormous issues like substance abuse and toxic relationships as mere plot points, an easy explanation that ignores the nuances and textures of what really happened. In other words, this film is a beautifully crafted first course, but it requires the documentary Amy to provide the full story.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 9.Apr.24

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© 2024 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall