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Review: Back to Black

Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back to Black is misguided and ultimately flawed attempt to chronicle the life and career of the late Amy Winehouse. Despite its touted noble intentions, the film falls short in capturing the essence of Winehouse's unique talent and turbulent existence, rendering a sanitized, often misguided portrait of an artist whose life was anything but. It is hard not to imagine Winehouse hating this film.

The narrative begins in Camden Town, north London, where a teenage Amy (played by Marisa Abela) blossoms in a family steeped in musical tradition. Her nan, Cynthia (Lesley Manville), emerges as a significant influence, shaping Amy's vintage style and love of jazz. The film opens with Amy performing "Stronger Than Me," a song from her debut album Frank. While the scene aims to showcase her early promise, it makes it seem like Winehouse created the song in seconds. We consistently hear that music is her life and yet the film curious skips over her writing and recording process.

Abela's portrayal of Winehouse is a mixed bag. While she admirably imitates Winehouse's vocal style, her performance lacks the raw charisma and spontaneity that defined the real Amy. The film's concert sequences, recreating iconic performances from the Grammys to Glastonbury, are competently staged but lack the electrifying energy that Winehouse brought to her shows. These scenes feel more like a highlight reel than a deep dive into what made her performances so magnetic.

The film then shifts focus to Amy's tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell). Their romance, depicted with a semblance of tragic inevitability, consumes much of the film's runtime. O’Connell's portrayal of Blake is infused with a sleazy charm but one that never feels dangerous. When Blake goes to prison for nearly beating a man to death, it is a shock for how out of character that behavior seems. This speaks to the films biggest crimes. Back To Black seems more concerned with absolving those people close to Amy in her tragic trajectory, most often putting the blame on the only woman who can't tell her side. The film presents their relationship as a misguided but genuine love affair. This sympathetic portrayal stands in stark contrast to the depiction of Blake in the Oscar winning documentary Amy.

Back to Black also gives Amy's father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan), a generous portrayal. The film paints him as a caring father doing his best to save his daughter, a far cry from the opportunistic figure shown in Amy. This sanitized portrayal of key figures in Winehouse's life dilutes the film's potential for a more nuanced exploration of the forces that contributed to her tragic end.

The only unequivocal villains in the film are the paparazzi, portrayed as a faceless, predatory mass. While their relentless hounding of Winehouse is again rendered in a gutless way. Back To Black stops short of examining the broader industry and cultural dynamics that exploited her. Amy's struggles with bulimia, self-harm, and addiction are mentioned but not explored in depth, leaving a void where a more comprehensive understanding of her challenges should be.

Despite its focus on Amy's personal life, Back to Black offers little insight into her creative process. The film misses opportunities to delve into her collaborations with producers like Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, who helped shape her distinctive sound. Instead, it settles for superficial reflections on her art and life, delivered in lines that feel more like clichés than genuine revelations.

A recurring motif in the film is Amy's desire for motherhood, culminating in a contrived and melodramatic conclusion. In a late scene, Amy learns that Blake has had a child with another woman. Distraught, she ascends a staircase bathed in ethereal light, while the camera lingers on a caged songbird—a heavy-handed symbol of her trapped existence. This ending reduces her complex life to a simplistic and somewhat sexist trope, undermining the film's intent to honor her memory.

Back to Black suffers from an overly cautious approach, perhaps to avoid offending Winehouse's estate or fans. However, this results in a lackluster and often frustratingly shallow biopic. Taylor-Johnson's film captures moments of Amy's life but fails to convey the vibrant and volatile spirit that made her a singular talent. Back to Black does a disservice to Amy Winehouse's legacy. 1/5


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