Back to Black  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson, France/UK/US, 2024, 122 mins

Cast:  Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville

Review by Carol Allen

Even before they’d had a chance to see this film, fans of Amy Winehouse were complaining from the trailer that Marisa Abela, who plays Amy, was miscast and couldn’t sing as well as their heroine.  It was perhaps inevitable that the devoted fanbase of someone who died so young (27) and comparatively recently (2011) would never be satisfied.  

Fans of the subjects of other  biopics made in the last ten years– Elvis, Maestro (Leonard Bernstein), Judy, Freddie Mercury – are now middle aged or even elderly, while Elton John’s following took Rocketman in their stride, as indeed did Elton.

But if you’re not outraged at the very thought of director Sam Taylor-Johnson making a film about Winehouse and so can stand back a bit, what we have is the story of a talented teenager from a North London Jewish family, who became a big star at a very young age but suffered from two fatal flaws – her love of the bottle and her passionate but destructive relationship with an equally self-destructive man.   And it’s a story which Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh have a pretty good stab at, aided by strong performances from Abela as Amy and Jack O’Connell as her sexy but drug addled boyfriend/husband Blake Fielder-Civil.

We first meet Amy as a teenager dealing with the break up of her parents’ marriage.  She is closest to her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), who had the sort of glamorous life of romance and music in her youth, which Amy wants for herself.   Her dad (Eddie Marsan) encourages Amy’s ambition and while still a teenager she gets a gig at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.  Well, that can’t be bad, can it?  

But she’s a stroppy, strong minded little madam, who most of all likes to spend her time hanging out in the pubs of her home territory, Camden Town in North London, which is where she meets Blake. 

Abela (and her make-up artist) certainly capture the signature look of the much photographed Amy – the big hair, heavy eye makeup, revealing clothes and oh how I  groaned each time she acquired yet another tattoo.  And the repartee and then the passion between her and Blake are both convincing.  So too is the relationship in the story between her life experience and her songs, which are well staged,  though as I was not a particular follower of Amy’s music, I can’t really say how close her delivery is to that of the real life Amy.   But as Abela is an actress, not an impressionist, and is playing a role in a piece of dramatic storytelling, that is surely not the main point?

What does ring very true in Abela’s performance is the tragedy of Amy’s self destruction – her devastation at the loss of first her grandmother and then Blake and way drugs but far more alcohol take over her life.  Apart from when she is actually singing, she never seems to really enjoy the fruits of her fame.  We don’t see much in the way of designer outfits, flash cars, a particularly plush home or a champagne and caviar lifestyle.  If the film is to be believed, even as an international star, she still preferred the pubs of Camden Town– but unfortunately now ruthlessly pursued by the same  intrusive paparazzi who tormented the late Princess Diana.

I left the cinema feeling deeply saddened by the story of a talented young woman, who never found the support she needed to prevent her from destroying herself.   

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