Life & Culture

Back to Black review: A sanitised version of Amy’s life that will offend no-one

A film that tries hard not to offend anyone, and succeeds in self-censorship


The Winehouse family has felt unfairly represented in documentaries. But it is unlikely that anyone depicted in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic of Amy Winehouse will be mortally offended. Her mum Janis is barely in it and her dad Mitch, played by Eddie Marsan, is little more than a figure of watchful concern, as opposed to the exploitative parent he felt he was portrayed as in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary Amy.

Even her boyfriend and eventual husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) credited with introducing Winehouse to hard drugs is shown as likeable.

The scene in which the destructive relationship is sparked in Camden’s The Good Mixer pub is a beautifully played courtship between two mutually attracted chancers, one of whom happens to be a supremely talented singer-songwriter with a voice that would not wilt next to the all-time greatest jazz singers.

Nor will any complain about the performance by the always excellent Lesley Manville. The Crown’s Princess Margaret here takes on the role of Amy’s Nan, Cynthia, the singer’s confidant and style inspiration who died of lung cancer just as Amy’s star was soaring.

Perhaps even Winehouse herself might have been content with Marisa Abela’s portrayal. Granted, online complaints made after the film’s trailer was released derided the actor’s singing voice compared to the original.

But to my ear Abela’s voice goes a long way to capturing Winehouse’s smokey depths even if there is not quite the stunning sense of a north London Jewish girl being visited by the same talent angel as, say, Billie Holiday.

The voice is a powerful presence. It is first heard in the Southgate living room of Amy’s family home. Aunts and uncles are gathered round an upright piano belting out the Hebrew song Tzur Mishelo like it was Roll Out The Barrel. Then out of nowhere their beloved Amy starts crooning Fly Me To The Moon. It is as if someone teleported a jazz great from a gig in 1950s New York directly onto the Winehouse carpet.

Amy’s Jewishness is never far away. She wears a chunky Magen David around her neck throughout the film and when Cynthia asks if the new boyfriend Blake is Jewish, Amy gives the most Jewish of answers “I don’t know. But no.”

Yet although the movie is brimful of the star’s charisma – “I’m no spice girl” she warns the first A and R man to show interest in signing her up – Taylor-Johnson’s portrait appears so determined to cause no offence it is as if it has self-censored itself into a sanitised version of Winehouse’s life.

The drinking that largely killed her comes across as student-style excess. The bulimia is barely mentioned. Amy’s declaration that she has to live her songs before she can write them is a fascinating insight into her process. “I’m not like Nat King Cole who can knock out 12 hits before lunchtime,” she says. This also gives Matt Greenhlagh’s script a useful framework. Her all-conquering album Black to Black charts the turmoil of her life as the relationship with Fielder-Civil hits the rocks,  some of them rocks of crack.

However, the wait for the film to match the drama of Winehouse’s songs is never rewarded. The impression is of a great solo artist struggling with the solitude of her life, so neglected is she by those around her. But not in a way that will result in anyone, even the record industry, feeling accused.

Back to Black

Cert: 15 | ★★★✩✩

Out April 12th 

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