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"Answers to pivotal questions are all but confined to marginalia": Back to Black

Sam Taylor-Johnson's toothless Amy Winehouse biopic lacks the wit, waywardness and fiery mendacity of its megastar subject.

Back to black film still

In the UK, the name Amy Winehouse triggers an Apollo 11 moment for most – the immediate recollection of when and where we first became witness to her life as it unfolded in song, on television and across the tabloids.

For many, it was her tall gnashers and altitudinous beehive towering above Jools Holland as she debuted 'Rehab'. For others it was her superior rendition of the Zutons’ 'Valerie' or her gobby takedown of pestering reporters. I recall Winehouse at Glastonbury, stumbling across stage in seven-inch stilettos, commanding the crowd like her zombie army.

But regardless of the source of our fascination with this star eclipsed too soon, there remains a collective reverence for her spirit; her fearless, calcified waywardness and her ability to create art as hard as she loved, even if this meant loving too hard. It seems odd, then, that Back to Black, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is so toothless, contributing nothing to the singer’s memory other than information we’ve all long since absorbed.

Yes, we see essential, very well documented periods in Amy’s life: her mainstream debut on The Jonathan Ross Show; Future Records executive meetings; pool games in The Good Mixer. But screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh skips over periods of great drama and tumult with athletic pace. Enlighten us a little more: How did Amy’s work with producer Salaam Remi convince America to take her seriously? Where is Mark Ronson? What was life like when Amy shut herself away from the world for weeks? As far as Back to Black is concerned, we will never know, because the answers to these pivotal questions are all but confined to marginalia.

Perhaps this is why Marisa Abela seems so de-fanged as her on-screen subject, so hampered in her ability to respond to Amy’s world with a similar self-effacing wit and fiery mendacity.

Amy was funny, she was all too aware of the absurdity of her circumstance and the troubles which mired her life, and she wasn’t afraid to ask, 'What kind of fuckery is this?' But Abela lacks the confidence to carry Amy’s knowingness over, often hiding behind her head wobbles and vocal tics to mask an absence of conviction.

There have been attempts to add nuance to Amy’s story here, with Taylor-Johnson putting forward a sympathetic view of Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy’s troubled ex-husband (played by an over-muscular Jack O'Connell), who introduced the singer to heroin. But the sum total of his character adds up to anti-litigious dishonesty.

Fielder-Civil’s evidenced parasitical persona has been replaced with a Jack the Lad, Prince Charming type, who somehow introduces Amy to The Shangri-Las, despite her having growing up listening to 60s girl groups. Aside from swiping Amy’s creative agency, the film also removes Fielder-Civil’s involvement in her heroin abuse. Nowhere is the drug mentioned, nowhere is it shown. He appears as an oblivious witness to her addictions, abdicated from any role in her undoing.

It’s rare to find someone without an opinion on Amy Winehouse – but somehow Taylor-Johnson has little to say.

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