‘Back to Black’ more of a muddled gray

In retrospect, watching the Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy” the night before seeing “Back to Black” wasn’t a good idea.

It certainly didn’t allow the Sam Taylor-Johnson-directed biopic to withstand any comparison between the two.

“Back to Black” is a serviceable music biography, following the same beats as countless others as it chronicles the rise and fall of Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning at age 27 in 2011. With “Bohemian Rhapsody” earning nearly $700 million worldwide in 2018, no wonder producers are trying to duplicate its success.

Winehouse’s “Back to Black” won five Grammy Awards and sold 16 million copies.

If half of those record buyers purchase a movie ticket, it doesn’t reach the rhapsodic heights of the Freddie Mercury movie, but it’s a generous return on a reported budget of $30 million.

But “Back to Black” sands off too many of the rough edges in Winehouse’s tragic story. Winehouse was extreme — in her artistry, in her look, in her addictions. “Back to Black” seldom is.

Marisa Abela plays Winehouse and does her own singing, according to the production notes in the press kit.

Her vocal abilities are impressive and she comes closer than many might expect, but she softens some of the affectation in Winehouse’s voice, which was such a distinctive element of her sound.

Abela is more conventionally pretty than Winehouse — there were a couple closeups about two-thirds of the way through the film where she looked like Britney Spears doing Amy Winehouse cosplay. The hair and makeup accentuate that. Winehouse’s ‘do simultaneously managed to be an architectural marvel of hairsprayed pouf and a disheveled mess. Both her hair and her life are a little less messy.

Both Winehouse’s father Mitch, played by Eddie Marsan, and her husband Blake (Jack O’Donnell) are portrayed far more sympathetically here than in the documentary. Perhaps the filmmaker needed their cooperation to get the rights to the music.

Marsan is a charming actor and makes Mitch a loving, albeit flawed father with little to no sign of the enabler and opportunist who emerges in the documentary.

While Winehouse clearly had an addictive personality and self-destructive tendencies before meeting Blake, he is credited / blamed as the one who introduced her to harder drugs, and their relationship was as volatile as it was passionate.

Taylor-Johnson decides to emphasize the love story over the volatility, but that approach clashes with the details of Winehouse’s downfall, creating tonal shifts that don’t work.

Not wanting to mirror the approach of the documentary is understandable, but some of the omissions are inexplicable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments in “Amy” coincides with Winehouse’s most triumphant. Winehouse won five Grammy Awards in 2008, including record of the year, song of the year and best new artist. Winehouse wasn’t at the ceremony, but she performed live on the show via satellite from London and delivered an emotional acceptance speech.

That moment is in both films, but in “Amy” it’s followed by one of her friends recounting her conversation with Winehouse later that night, where she told her how boring the whole thing was while sober. How do you make a biofilm about an addict and not include that moment?

“Back in Black” is best in showing Winehouse’s relationship with her grandmother, Cynthia, played by Lesley Manville. She influenced both her musical taste and her fashion sense.

That’s about the only area where “Back to Black” improves on a nine-year-old documentary, which raises the question, why bother?


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today