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Movies & TV

12th Apr 2024

The Amy Winehouse biopic is far better than you might expect

Stephen Porzio

Despite the bad buzz ahead of its release, we’d argue the movie is a worthwhile dramatisation of the late pop star’s life.

Not since Don’t Worry Darling has a movie had such bad buzz surrounding it ahead of its release than the new Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black.

This is to be expected given the subject matter – after all, not every film is about someone as beloved, distinctive and idiosyncratic as the British pop star – a truly once-in-a-generation music talent whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 27.

Indeed, even the news that an Amy Winehouse drama was in the works led to many music and movie fans asking some important questions – What actress could possibly embody the late musician and would a Hollywood biopic be able to portray her life in a sensitive but realistic manner?

Perhaps adding to people’s concerns was the casting of Marisa Abela as Winehouse, an actress virtually unknown to the general public – unless they happened to watch the underseen yet truly fantastic finance drama series Industry in which she currently stars in and is fantastic in.

Indeed, a clip taken from the biopic and shared on social media ahead of its release had many quick to criticise the actress’ performance as the late pop star – zeroing in on the differences in Abela’s appearance and voice to that of the real Winehouse.

To paraphrase an old expression, we’d say don’t judge a movie by a TikTok clip. Because if there is a bit of an uncanniness to watching the performer play the pop star in a few minutes of the film in isolation, this is much less of an issue when watching it as a whole.

This is because Abela and director Sam Taylor-Johnson (who made the acclaimed John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy) wisely realised that it is better to put more of an emphasis on capturing Winehouse’s spirit than flawlessly recreating singer’s mannerisms.

The best parts of Back to Black are in its first half. This is when we get to see a side to Winehouse people may be less familiar with – her as a young woman in early 2000s London as she takes her experiences in the city and uses it as the basis for her incredible music.

During this early stretch, Abela and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (who also worked on Nowhere Boy, as well as the excellent Ian Curtis biopic Control) paint a believable portrait of Winehouse as a naturally vibrant, strong-willed, rightfully confident in her abilities artist who also felt things very deeply and chased experiences and was interested in the grittiness of everyday life.

They are ably supported by Taylor-Johnson’s stylish, woozy direction that captures the excitement of being young and creating art and falling love – indeed the romantic scene in which Winehouse meets and falls for with Blake Fielder-Civil (an excellent Jack O’Connell) – who she would go on to have a notoriously ill-fated relationship with – is one for the ages.

This part of the movie is enough to cautiously recommend fans of Winehouse or music in general give it a chance, although one almost wishes the filmmakers had found a way to make the entirety of the biopic focused on just this part of her life.

That’s because Back to Black is on noticeably less sure footing when it comes to Winehouse’s later troubles, with Greenhalgh and Taylor-Johnson not quite communicating them all in a way that rings consistently true.

There is a feeling that some of the more difficult details regarding Winehouse’s addiction and other mental health struggles have been sanitised. Also, given that the biopic has the support of the singer’s estate, many viewers have taken issue with the movie’s rather sympathetic portrayal of the pop star’s father Mitch (Eddie Marsan).

And yet, even with these issues, overall Back to Black does feel like a worthwhile dramatisation of a legend’s life – a film which ranks on the higher echelon of the recent wave of music biopics.

Back to Black is in cinemas now.

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