[Baltimore Sun] Movie review: Marisa Abela’s portrayal of Amy Winehouse is the best thing about ‘Back to Black’

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Most Americans discovered Amy Winehouse through the song “Rehab,” a defiant yet witty middle finger to those who suggested the British singer/songwriter needed to address her substance abuse. It felt like a classic one-off novelty hit — that is, until you heard the rest of her second album “Back to Black” in full.

In making the 2006 record, Winehouse drew on her childhood love of jazz and her then-recent discovery of old-school girl groups to explore her fiery relationship with her ex-boyfriend (and future husband) Blake Fielder-Civil. The deeply personal, highly emotional songs also found room for sly humor and tortured heartbreak. It went double platinum in the U.S. and boasted similar sales around the world. It won Winehouse five Grammys, including best new artist and record and song of the year for “Rehab.” It stands as one of the finest albums of the 21st century.

Add in her distinctive style — disheveled beehive, Cleopatra makeup, multiple tattoos — and her tragic death at 27 (the same age Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain perished) and Winehouse seems like an obvious choice for a biopic. Indeed, various attempts were made in the first dozen years after her 2011 death.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy,” “Fifty Shades of Grey”) was the one to finally cross the finish line with “Back to Black,” which opens in theaters Friday.

It opens with Winehouse (Marisa Abela) interacting with her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), with the former gifting her a love of singing and jazz and the latter serving as her fashion icon. From there, we see her land a record deal, find success in England with her debut album “Frank” and decide she needs to take time to live more of her life before attempting to record the follow-up.

That’s when she meets Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) in a Camden Town pub. Taylor-Johnson does a fine job of showing how what could have been just another night of drunken flirting blossomed into an obsessive and ultimately destructive romance. (It’s also worth noting that O’Connell is far more attractive and charismatic than the real-life Fielder-Civil.)

With a running time of two hours, “Back to Black” never gets too ponderous and, if anything, it could have used more exploration into her actual music making. The film goes out of its way to mention producer Mark Ronson by name, but never bothers depicting him on screen.

That’s far from the only problem with “Back to Black,” which comes across as overly glossy and too reverent to Winehouse, her father and Fielder-Civil. It’s great that Taylor-Johnson chose not to get too exploitative in portraying the realities of Winehouse’s substance abuse, depression and bulimia, but a little more truth telling would have gone a long way. And by all accounts — including to some extent from the men themselves — Mitch Winehouse and Fielder-Civil are far more difficult and complex people than the film would suggest.

The real reason “Back to Black” is worth seeing is the jaw-dropping performance from Abela, who is best known for her role in the HBO drama “Industry” and a bit part in last year’s “Barbie.” The 27-year-old totally embodies Winehouse’s unique look and presence. She feels like a true star. She also convincingly sings much of the music herself without resorting to mimicry. Watching her on screen, I was often reminded of Renee Zellweger’s fully immersive, Oscar-winning portrayal of Judy Garland in the heartbreaking 2019 biopic “Judy.”

If you want to know more about Amy Winehouse, Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary “Amy” offers a much more honest and detailed view of her devastatingly short life. The neutered “Back to Black” merely offers a narrow vision of a true genius.

‘Back to Black’

Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville
Rated: R for language, substance use, nudity and smoking
Should you watch? Yes, if only for the magnificent performance from Marisa Abela. 2-1/2 stars

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