Sunday, May 19, 2024

“BACK TO BLACK”

THE STORY – Singer Amy Winehouse’s tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil inspires her to write and record the groundbreaking album “Back to Black.”

THE CAST – Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Lesley Manville & Eddie Marsan

THE TEAM – Sam Taylor-Johnson (Director) & Matt Greenhalgh (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 122 Minutes


From the moment it was announced that filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson was making an Amy Winehouse biopic to add to the long list of celebrity musical biopics that have plagued screens for the past 15 years, the internet went into a tailspin. The prevailing opinion was that nobody asked for this, nobody wanted to watch it, and Amy Winehouse probably would have hated it. Unfortunately, as she was treated in her own life until her tragic death in 2011, Winehouse had no say in her depiction in “Back to Black,” as studio executives decided they needed to squeeze some more money from the voice that defined music in the 2000s.

The biopic film introduces us to Amy during the process of writing her debut album, “Frank.” She is still a teenager, and, speaking from experience, Taylor-Johnson manages to capture the feeling of being young in London in the 2000s quite well. London is a prominent feature in the film, and Taylor-Johnson enjoys playing around with the scenery, especially in early scenes where Amy has not yet become so famous and is subsequently scrutinized. Much of the story takes place in local pubs and at the iconic jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s, which helps to set the tone and provide context for Winehouse’s rise. The costuming is spot-on in depicting the indie-sleaze style that was so popular in London at the time, which will satisfy more detail-oriented audience members. Unfortunately, the historical accuracy (and overall enjoyment) ends there.

Aside from the profound lack of originality, “Back to Black” highlights a fundamental issue with turning real people’s lives into a movie for mass consumption: a person’s real life does not follow a simple three-act structure or anything resembling it. In an attempt to extract some kind of linear drama from her life, Taylor-Johnson ends up creating something more akin to an episodic soap opera full of theatrics from Amy Winehouse’s troubled history. Marisa Abela actually gives a decent performance as Winehouse and does her best to inject some of Amy’s notorious humor into the film. Unfortunately, the decision to use Abela’s vocals does quite a disservice to the film – not because her voice is terrible (it isn’t). But hearing such iconic songs in somebody else’s voice sounds wrong and makes it blatantly obvious that you aren’t actually listening to Amy Winehouse. When it was announced that Abela was cast as Amy, people took to the internet to submit their own fan castings, such as Raye or Lauren Jauregui, and it’s easy to understand why when one considers how much Winehouse meant and still means to so many people today. Despite all this, Abela gives as solid a performance as she can and manages to sometimes elevate the inconsistent script from screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh. Unfortunately, she looks pretty different from Amy, particularly in portraying recognizable moments from the famous singer’s life, such as the infamous Jonathan Ross interview and her Grammy Awards wins. Again, it isn’t Abela’s fault; it is just an unavoidable consequence of reenacting significant events from a past that still feels all too recent.

The rest of the ensemble is impressive on paper but is criminally underused. Lesley Manville is perfectly fine playing Cynthia Winehouse, while Eddie Marsan and Jack O’Connell don’t have much to do in the roles of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, and her drug-addicted husband Blake Fielder-Civil, respectively. The film is kind almost to the point of pandering toward Mitch and Blake, both of whom are depicted as powerless to Amy’s strong will. It should be noted that “Back to Black” received the support of the Winehouse estate, namely Mitch Winehouse, in contrast to the Academy Award-winning 2015 documentary “Amy,” which was much more scathing of Amy Winehouse’s support system (again, namely Mitch Winehouse).

The portrayal of Amy as the villain of her own life is perhaps the most perplexing position this film could take. She is shown trying Class A drugs for the first time by herself, something for which Fielder-Civil has publicly taken responsibility. It would appear that the script decided to rewrite some of the external responsibility of her abuse issues under the guise of showing a grittier version of her life. It’s an unexpected stance for a biopic and is particularly distasteful when the subject cannot defend herself. Where Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” glossed over some of the more morally questionable aspects of Elvis Presley’s life to paint him in a better light, “Back to Black” does the opposite, seeking to show its protagonist as self-destructive and omitting her personal struggles such as her eating disorder. Greenhalgh’s script does attempt to point the finger at the British paparazzi, and it’s an obvious commentary on the celebrity idolatry that still plagues much of the world. But that commentary goes nowhere and falls flat when the film insists on being just as unkind to its subject with little else to say.

The rest of the “Back to Black’s construction is serviceable at best and mediocre at worst; there is a satisfactory but forgettable score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The soundtrack is pretty good, pulling references from Winehouse’s musical influences such as the Shangri-La’s and Minnie Ripperton, and the needle drops bring some life into the film, although the film credits Fielder-Civil as introducing Winehouse to the Shangri-La’s, which is a suspect storytelling choice. There are genuine moments of joy that are elevated by the soundtrack, including a sequence of Amy running around Camden with her friends while Lauryn Hill plays in the background, but these moments are few and far between.

“Frank” is an album that can remind anyone of a warm, nostalgic past. Amy Winehouse represented an era for many as she did for so many others. Her voice was so rich and full, and she was so open that any attempt to capture her spirit was predestined to fail. Luckily, Amy Winehouse’s music and life left their mark on the public zeitgeist, and a poorly misguided and forgettable film like “Back to Black” won’t put a dent in her established legacy.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Abela's performance as Amy is a definite highlight. The costuming department certainly did their research.

THE BAD - The script is aimless and uneven. Misguided viewpoint of Amy's struggles. Some supporting performances are lackluster.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 3/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Abela's performance as Amy is a definite highlight. The costuming department certainly did their research.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The script is aimless and uneven. Misguided viewpoint of Amy's struggles. Some supporting performances are lackluster.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>3/10<br><br>"BACK TO BLACK"