Hollywood Movies

Marisa Abela Lifts Flawed Amy Winehouse Biopic

April 9, 20246 Mins Read

Fans regularly make film biopics about famous musicians successful, but they also love to nitpick the results. Or to misquote Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division and the subject of a rather good musical biopic (Control), love will tear apart any work of fan service if it screws up the story, paints the subject in too unflattering a light or, worst of all, mangles the music with impersonations that barely rise above the level of karaoke. (Consider, if you dare, Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea.)  

On the other hand, there’s also something irksome about biopics that have actors lip sync to the original songs, like Naomi Ackie did for I Wanna Dance With Somebody or, much less successfully, Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire! Especially if that means access to the original recordings or even rights to the songs in the first place requires the script to go soft on the subject’s vices, dark side or just less-than-squeaky-clean secrets.

Back to Black

The Bottom Line

A bloody ballet slipper full of soul.

Release date: April 12 (U.K.), May 17 (U.S.)
Cast: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan, Harley Bird, Ansu Kavia, Therica Wilson-Read, Bronson Webb
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenwriter: Matt Greenhalgh

2 hours 2 minutes

You might say that there’s no winning either way, except that the box-office hauls for films like Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody indicate that there’s winning galore to be had if a biopic hits the right sweet spot — somewhere between hagiography and desecration that sends viewers out humming the hits.

That Goldilocks zone is clearly what the filmmakers behind Back to Black were aiming for with this carefully calibrated portrait of the late Amy Winehouse, and largely they succeed. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Matt Greenhalgh — who also happened to write Control as well as Nowhere Man, a portrait of John Lennon as a young man that was Taylor-Johnson’s directorial debut — Back to Black is, like its heroine, flawed and fallible but frequently very affecting.

Much of the credit should go to its star Marisa Abela, best known for her work on HBO’s Industry, who manages to project Winehouse’s distinctive blend of fragility, intelligence and cornered-wildcat self-destructiveness. Sexuality explodes off her, like that iconic beehive of hair, a heavy tonsorial crown full of want and need, cockiness and insecurity in equal measure. In strictly acting terms, it’s a barnstormer of a performance.

Musically, Abela is fractionally less persuasive. Not necessarily a singer by trade, the actress reportedly took hours upon hours of music lessons to get to a place where she could mimic Winehouse’s singing on stage. But the end result still sounds auto-tuned up the wazoo, zhuzhed further with great dollops of coloratura note-bending and wailing. At one point, Abela as Amy insists she’s no rock chick, but a jazz woman, and fans of Winehouse’s work know how much that shone through in her dynamic control. She wouldn’t let rip until just the right moment, but the performances in Back to Black always feel in a rush to get to the gospel-Motown-style show-offy stuff, like a contestant in one of those TV talent shows with only 30 seconds to impress the judges.

Perhaps the problem is recency bias that leaves viewers more disposed to appreciate the renditions from Winehouse’s still very familiar catalogue that they know best, the hit singles or the most iconic performances. One example near the end is the night Winehouse played the Grammys via satellite in London on the night she won best song for “Rehab.” That turn is recreated practically note for note here, and Abela gets every hip swing and jaw quaver right, wearing an exact copy of the Dolce & Gabbana dress Winehouse wore. For many viewers, this is just what they came for. Others may feel disappointed, however, that we never get to see the moment that night when Winehouse tells a friend backstage that none of this is as much fun as it was when she was on drugs, as reported in Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary Amy.

Kapadia’s doc was criticized by Winehouse’s father Mitchell, perhaps because he comes across quite poorly in the editing as someone keen to profit from his daughter’s success. Apparently, Mitch Winehouse and the surviving members of Amy’s family gave the filmmakers advice for Back to Black, so it’s no surprise that Eddie Marsan’s version of cab-driver Mitch is much more sympathetic — even if, at a crucial moment, he doesn’t give in to pressure from Amy’s distraught manager (Sam Buchanan) to persuade her to go to rehab and get the help she clearly sorely needs. (Sorry, but no, no, no — that doesn’t look like good parenting.)

Likewise, Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse husband, inspiration and object of her addictive obsession, gets a little reputation rehab here too thanks to a quite sympathetic portrait from the script and Jack O’Connell’s charismatic performance. What ends up being described by Blake in the film as a “toxic co-dependency” is also a proper love story too, a relationship built as much around Amy and Blake’s worst instincts as their finer feelings. He gets to take the credit, at least, for introducing Amy to the wall-of-sound-gloriousness that is the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” which he lip-syncs coquettishly himself to in one of their first courting scenes in a grimy Camden pub.

Abela and O’Connell’s fissile chemistry together is a reminder that despite the tackiness of Fifty Shades of Grey‘s soft porn, Taylor-Johnson has a knack for evoking erotic longing — especially that of women looking at men, a subject she explored often in her photography and video work back in the days when she was best known as a visual artist and contemporary of Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili and Tracey Emin.

In some ways, the flaws in Back to Black are similar to the weaknesses in her late 1990s/early 2000s art: a certain facile interest in surface, an obsession with celebrity and fame that lacks insight, a pop video-deep approach to narrative. By the end of Back to Black, we’ve observed Amy rise to fame, fall in love, get heartbroken, and die but we never really get to know what makes her tick. There’s a lot of emphasis on her familial relationships, not just with Mitch and the mother (Juliet Cowan) who barely features, but also with her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville, moving). But the film doesn’t examine how this seemingly happy clappy North London Jewish family singing Yiddish songs around the piano might have shaped Amy in any way apart from instilling a love of music and getting her into performing arts school.

Her talent, her grit, her beauty and her rage are as inexplicable as the song sung by the canary she inherits from Cynthia. But then that’s biopics — they always leave you wanting more.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts


Get our latest downloads and information first.
Complete the form below to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

No, thank you. I do not want.
100% secure your website.