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'Back to Black' review: Amy Winehouse biopic captures joy and tragedy

Yasmeen Wafai, The Seattle Times on

Published in Entertainment News

There’s a moment from the 2008 Grammy Awards that gives me chills every time I see it. “Rehab” by English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse had just been announced as record of the year. Winehouse, with her signature beehive and thick winged eyeliner, stares like a deer in headlights for about five seconds processing what she just heard in a moment of disbelief, before celebrating with her band and family. It’s genuine and joyful.

That moment is just one snapshot of her career depicted in the biographical drama “Back to Black,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and starring Marisa Abela.

As its name suggests, “Back to Black” is dark. With Winehouse’s great talent also came struggles with addiction, mental illness and bulimia. The movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the artist at her lowest lows: throwing up in the toilet; physically fighting with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell); stumbling drunk through rainy London. This isn’t a bright tale of Winehouse’s rise to stardom. It’s a tragic story of a once-in-a-generation talent gone too soon.

As a big fan of Winehouse, my reaction to Abela’s performance was complicated. She did a good job of bringing Winehouse’s spunk, vulnerability and big-as-her-hair personality to the screen; a scene of her getting emotional in the studio while recording the song “Back to Black” was particularly moving. But my favorite thing about Winehouse was her voice, so I found Abela’s own singing voice to be a bit distracting. She matched Winehouse’s signature jazzy tone, but doesn’t have the low register rasp that made Winehouse’s voice unique.

Some of the movie’s best scenes focus on the relationship Winehouse had with her beloved nan, Cynthia Winehouse (Lesley Manville), who deeply influenced Winehouse. Her grandmother’s death is something Winehouse’s family believes was a factor in the singer’s spiral into addiction.

In the film, when the two are looking at old photos together or when Cynthia styles Winehouse’s hair into that unmistakable beehive, Abela and Manville make you forget you’re watching a movie. The love and care the characters have for each other feel visceral through the screen, like you’re watching yourself interact with any older woman in your life that you would do anything for. Through these humanizing moments, the film shows another side of the usually frank, tough Winehouse, as someone who loved passionately.

In an odd way, the movie acts as a semblance of Winehouse to cling on to, even if her family wasn’t involved in the making of it. (Her estate did approve of making a film about her.) She only left us with two studio albums and had a public career of less than 10 years. Abela is not Winehouse, but she brought a silhouette of her into 2024.

At the end of the film, we’re reminded that Winehouse was only 27 when she died, a fact that brought up winged eyeliner-smudging tears. I was happy to be snapped back with the last scene, one of Abela replicating one of Winehouse’s performances. It felt like a nod to how we should remember Winehouse: as an artist who loved music and wanted people to hear her voice and “forget their troubles for five minutes.”

 

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'BACK TO BLACK'

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

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

Running time: 2:03

How to watch: in theaters now

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©2024 The Seattle Times. Visit seattletimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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