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Review: Amy Winehouse didn't want to go to 'Rehab,' no, no, no and her biopic, 'Back to Black,' also resists logic

Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's a new biopic about a famed musician. It's not great. But the actor who plays the musician is.

Like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Get On Up," "Elvis" and too many others, "Back to Black" has a difficult time making sense of the performer at its center, Amy Winehouse (who, like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, only had 27 years on this Earth). There are reasons for this: A person's life lends itself more to the arc of a TV miniseries than a two-hour movie, which inevitably crams in so much that it's like a photo album without the captions. But a dynamic performer such as Winehouse or Freddie Mercury is always going to give an actor tons of flashy stuff to work with.

Marisa Abela, who plays a spoiled little rich girl/stock trader on HBO's "Industry," is the talented actor in "Back to Black," which skips childhood to give us Winehouse's life from being discovered as a teenager to her death less than a decade later. Winehouse's slurry, growly voice is imitable, and Abela, who does her own singing, nails it. The performance scenes, and there are lots of them, are unquestionably the highlights of "Black."

Another asset is the great Lesley Manville, who was an Oscar nominee for "The Phantom Thread," as Winehouse's grandmother. The freshest element of "Black" is learning how much Winehouse doted on her nan, a former jazz singer whom the movie has Amy describing as "my style icon." Lots of tragic things happen in "Black" but the one moving scene is simply grandmother and granddaughter, in a park, silently grappling with the bad news that nan is dying.

It's too bad screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh didn't opt to keep Manville around longer (elsewhere, he's quite willing to monkey with the facts, as in a scene where a boyfriend supposedly introduces Winehouse to the Shangri-Las, a '60s band she knew and loved in real life). Manville's quiet strength and warmth are missed when she's no longer in "Black," although, come to think of it, that does jibe with the movie's argument that Winehouse began to fall apart when she lost her grandmother.

One roadblock for biopics is legal rights (or not) to the stories of subsidiary people in the star's life. Winehouse's former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and father, Mitch, are very much alive and, not coincidentally, come off better in "Black" than they did in news accounts or in the Oscar-winning documentary "Amy."

As a result of trying to make silk purses out of those sow's ears, "Black" skips crucial developments and obscures others. Winehouse's relationship with her husband was important, coinciding with the peak of her brief career, but the movie sheds no light on what they were to each other and it bends over backward to make Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan) look as blameless as possible when the subject of getting alcohol-addicted Amy into rehab is broached.

Success came early and easily to Winehouse. There has to be a story there, too, but "Black" doesn't tell it — good friend Mark Ronson, who produced the breakthrough album that gives the movie its title, is mentioned once but never depicted. As a result, the movie leaves you with more questions than answers.

The good news is that you'll find many answers in the excellent, aforementioned "Amy."

 

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‘BACK TO BLACK’

2 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for drug use, language throughout, sexual content and nudity)

Running time: 2:02

How to watch: In theaters May 17

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©2024 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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