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Review: 'Back to Black'

I was a huge Amy Winehouse fan. 

I loved her voice.  I loved her arrangements.

What I didn’t love seeing was her, very public, very-visible plummet into self-destruction in what turned out to be her very short career. 

Sadly, for me, it was never a question of whether she was going to die tragically.  It was only a matter of when.  She was just 27.

Her decline was not easy to watch.  It seemed to parallel the troubled lives of other music legends like Judy Garland or Judy Holliday. 

They were also heart-wrenching stories of  enormously talented singers who could not conquer their demons, singers whose remarkable careers were cut way too short.

Perhaps the most serious attempt to dig into the details of her existence was the documentary Amy which was released in 2015, just a few years after her passing in 2011.  It was comprised of video clips that were both illuminating and haunting.  For some reason, video—as opposed to film-- has a powerful sense of immediacy and raw reality.  It’s hard to imagine that the person you’re watching no longer exists. It seems unimaginable.

But the life of a legend often transcends a single telling.  There are so many ways to approach it and re-tell it, ranging from documentaries to fictionalized biopics.  Whatever the form, subjectivity enters in.

In the case of Back to Black, the approach is to largely avoid Amy Winehouse’s musical career and focus instead on the details of her romantic life.  There was, after all, some sunshine in her life in the way of Blake, the man who swept Amy off her feet.  She was head over heels in love with Blake despite his issues with substance abuse that eventually led to her subsequent addiction and death.

It’s hard to do a movie about Amy Winehouse’s love life that largely sidesteps the details of her professional career, but that is exactly what Back to Black attempts to do.  It’s an odd choice, downplaying the story of her rise to fame in the world of music, for the sake of narrowly focusing on her relationships and personal life. 

As we all know, all the events of one’s life are ultimately,  intricately intertwined.

One can only guess that the intent here was to present a sugar-coated version of Winehouse’s life by focusing on the brighter, happier moments, despite the fact that those moments eventually spun into darkness, rejection and despair.

Back to Black is a movie for Amy Winehouse fans who want a kindler, gentler version of her life story—one that goes easy on the pain and suffering.

Maria Abela stars as Amy Winehouse.  She deserves a lot credit for doing her best to become Amy on screen. To a large degree, she manages to channel Amy’s appearance and demeanor.  She manages to sound very much like Winehouse when she sings Amy’s hit songs.

The problem here is that she falls a little shy of hitting the mark. 

In terms of appearance, the makeup department is able to capture Amy’s signature Cleopatra-style eye makeup, beehive-type hairdos and numerous tattoos that were so much a part of Amy’s signature, throw-back style.  She slyly emulated the look of some of her favorite and most influential singers from a bygone era.

What the makeup department was not able to do was to faithfully capture Winehouse’s facial features, particularly her prominent nose.  It could have been achieved with the use of prosthetics, a technique that has become convincing over the years. 

Another distinguishing feature of Amy’s appearance was her thin, emaciated frailness, which became increasingly, alarmingly noticeable toward the end of her life.

In the film, Amy looks pleasantly healthy throughout, until the very end.  But up to that point, she is fresh faced and pretty despite the battle with drugs that rendered her shockingly emaciated. 

Trying to achieve Amy’s real life body look would have required a starvation diet on the part of Marisa Abela, along the lines of what Jared Leto did for his role in Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

Shy of that all-in, total commitment to the role, another possibility would have been to use a stand-in for the head-to-toe shots of Amy when she is seen from behind.  It’s an age-old Hollywood trick that no one seemed to consider here.

As for Marisa Abela’s efforts to faithfully recreate Amy’s one-of-a-kind vocal performances, while she did an admirable job, I can never understand why moviemakers even consider having actors attempt to emulate the voices of famous singers.  A great example is Taron Egerton’s attempt to do Elton John’s voice in Rocketmanback in 2019. 

The voices of great singers are unique and inimitable, plain and simple.  Which is why it’s puzzling when film directors and producers don’t have their look-alike actors lip sync actual, recorded voice tracks.  It can be done, and it can be done convincingly.  And in the end, it would be more respectful, not only to superstar performers, but to their fans as well.

Back to Black only succeeds in presenting an alternate-reality version of Amy Winehouse’s life story—one that pulls the punches and cherry picks the patches of sunlight in what was, in reality, a slow, sad, steady decent into darkness


Back to Black is a feel-good retelling of the Amy Winehouse story that tries to focus on fleeting moments of love and light in a story that ultimately ended in self-destructive tragedy. 


 Photo credits: Dean Rogers/Focus Features, Olli Upton/Focus Features



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