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‘Back to Black’ Review: Another Amy Winehouse Biopic? No, No, No.

‘Back to Black’ Review: Another Amy Winehouse Biopic? No, No, No.
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The director of “Back to Black,” Sam Taylor-Johnson, has said repeatedly in interviews that the movie is meant to center Amy Winehouse’s story in her own perspective. That may or may not be meant as implicit criticism of “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary about the singer, which wove together archival interviews — many damning — with family and friends as well as with Winehouse herself to make the case that everyone was at fault for her untimely demise.

Either way, Taylor-Johnson’s remarks suggest that Winehouse, who in 2011 died at the age of 27 of alcohol poisoning, has been co-opted in the years since her death. “Back to Black,” then, is an effort to tell the story the way she would have.

But, oof. If that was the aim, I’m comfortable saying it failed completely. “Back to Black” has some bright spots. One is Marisa Abela’s performance as Winehouse, which is deeply and lovingly committed, if at times a little distracting. A few sequences work, too, particularly her marathon pub meet-cute with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), the man whose exceptionally toxic relationship with Winehouse inspired the album for which the movie is named. (Unfortunately there are very few scenes in which we see Winehouse’s songs coming together — usually the best part of a musician biopic.)

“Back to Black” starts with Winehouse expressing that she simply wants people to listen to her music and forget their troubles for a while, and to know who she really was. Then it follows her through her early gigs in Camden pubs, her friendships and her fights with boyfriends. When she meets Fielder-Civil, everything changes — and not for the best. Always a heavy drinker, she gradually becomes addicted to all kinds of substances, in part because he is an addict. When he goes back to his girlfriend, she writes angry songs that become “Back to Black.” When he returns, things get worse.

Yet the facts of the real Winehouse’s life and struggles are impossible to ignore, and some of the movie’s choices, from a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, seem aimed at rewriting her history without her consent. Fielder-Civil, for instance, has said he instigated Winehouse’s first encounter with heroin, but in “Back to Black” she starts shooting up on her own.

In the meet-cute scene, he introduces her to “Leader of the Pack,” by the Shangri-Las, of whom she claims to have never heard. Winehouse did indeed cite the Shangri-Las as an influence on “Back to Black,” but in interview after interview in “Amy,” musicians and producers extol the breadth and depth of Winehouse’s musical knowledge. Ahmir K. Thompson, also known as Questlove, has said that Winehouse schooled him on jazz, to a level that floored him. It’s not just hard to believe this scene happened; it’s almost insulting to Winehouse, as if she needed Fielder-Civil to educate her.

Or there’s the matter of Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse (played by Eddie Marsan), whom she adored. “Back to Black” depicts him as a kindly if occasionally misguided man who only cared for his daughter’s well-being. The most damning line about him in Winehouses’s lyrics pops up in her most famous song, “Rehab,” in which she gives “my daddy thinks I’m fine” as a reason to stay out of rehab — a line based entirely in reality. In a scene in the movie, Mitch does say she doesn’t need to go to rehab. We never see her perform the song until the night of her Grammy wins, after she has in fact gone to rehab, and so the line just furnishes a rueful laugh for him.

Yet reality suggests dubious action on his part, too — such as the time he showed up in St. Lucia, where his daughter was recuperating, with a camera crew to film a Channel 4 documentary entitled “My Daughter Amy.” This isn’t represented in “Back to Black,” even though it’s part of Winehouse’s story, too.

Artistic license, the mushing and rearranging of facts, is common in biopics, for better or worse. It’s often necessary, since boiling a life down to fit into a two-hour feature film is no easy task. That a movie messes with the historical record a little doesn’t automatically make it bad.

But in “Back to Black” the omissions feel downright weird, as if something is being ignored. I can only speculate on the answer, but the speculation feels strong. Mitch Winehouse is the administrator of his daughter’s estate (and, incidentally, hated “Amy,” telling the filmmakers, “You should be ashamed of yourselves”). He has threatened to block a biopic of his daughter in the past, instead signing an agreement in 2018 for an authorized biopic with one of the producers of “Back to Black.”

Given the movie’s light-fingered treatment of some facts around the two most important men in Winehouse’s life, the picture starts to sharpen. “Back to Black” is far from the first biopic that smooths the edges off real people for the Hollywood treatment. But because the movie’s stated aim is to re-center Amy in her own story, it feels gross.

There are other things that feel weird in the movie, the veracity of which I can’t possibly know — Winehouse’s obsession, for instance, with having a baby, and the implication that she self-destructed because she and Fielder-Civil couldn’t conceive. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t.

Here’s what did happen: A vibrant, dynamic, abundantly talented woman whose life often didn’t feel much like her own has ended up at the center of a movie where her life, once again, is not her own — where the facts are manipulated to favor the men who arguably did the same at her expense when she was alive. Winehouse may someday get the biopic treatment she deserves. But I have to wonder if it’s even necessary. When she was alive, she did it all on her own, just fine. And we still have the album she called “Back to Black.”

Back to Black
Rated R for drug use, language and sexual innuendo. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. In theaters.



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