Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in 'Back to Black' Source: Focus Features

Review: Amy Winehouse Biopic 'Back to Black' Explores the Singer's Life and Music

JC Alvarez READ TIME: 4 MIN.

The arrival of British songstress Amy Winehouse on the music scene in the early 2000s marked a seismic shift across popular culture. The radio world had been largely dominated by the machinations of boy bands, pop princesses, and girl power, all of which catered with great affection to the MTV TRL crowd, but Amy Winehouse stood apart, and stood above, that cacophony. Her unique voice and appreciation for the jazz greats and the emotional depths of 60s R&B artists ingrained in her a soulful access that she was determined to bring back to the mainstream.

Tragically, even as her success and celebrity climbed, it was the controversies permeating her personal life – her marriage, her alcohol abuse and drug dependency – that made her the target of the tabloids. Their predatory intrusion into her life drove Winehouse down a dark and deep hole. Inevitably, she would not be able to find her way out.

In Sam Taylor-Johnson's biographical film "Back to Black," Winehouse's rise and fall are illustrated as a cautionary tale.

Johnson captures Winehouse's dramatic life story and the zeitgeist in which her meteoric career took place. The film feels edgeless and not as "rock 'n' roll" as the story might first appear to be.

Star Marisa Abela, a relative newcomer, takes on the formidable task of humanizing Winehouse, and puts a polish on the singer's presence while epitomizing her rebellious nature. The actress also conveys Winehouse's complete devotion and dedication to her music.

Amy's musical heroes hail from a different generation, among them Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, so she doesn't exactly feel inclined to sign with British icon maker Simon Fuller's label when its top clients are The Spice Girls. Amy ultimately takes the risk and sets on the path to release her first record.

The film illustrates how Amy needed to live her songs, and that is evident by her rough-and-tumble binges, love of tattoos, and connecting with an audience that didn't feel subservient to the "wannabe" climate in pop. Abela does an excellent job singing live, rather than lip-syncing many of the hit tracks that we associate with Winehouse. It's a gamble that pays off.

Jack O'Connell as Blake in 'Back to Black'
Source: Focus Features

As the film unspools, Winehouse's hard living begins to rattle her management team, who want to curb her worst impulses. Her father, Mitch (portrayed in the film by Eddie Marsan) – also a jazz vocalist, and wildly supportive of her musical career – would agree, but he doesn't see "the problem" so long as Amy stays away from serious drugs.

Then Amy meets Blake (Jack O'Connell). The pair is a dangerous combination! Amy becomes completely codependent on the surly Blake, who is little more than hustling his way through life to satisfy a drug addiction.

As their love story begins to develop, the veneer that Marisa Abela has brought to her portrayal of Winehouse is marred by the dullness of the impending downfall. Amy and Blake's toxic codependency gets them married, as the pair turn to harder drugs, and inevitably Blake is carted off to jail, accused of beating up a man.

Lesley Manville plays the part of Winehouse's nan Cynthia, who is perhaps (next to her dad) the closest family member she has. The two women of different generations couldn't be more closely comparable; the film suggests that Amy adopts her signature beehive from her nan. When Amy loses Cynthia to cancer, she's never the same, and the beehive that her nan fashioned for her for her trip to New York City, where Amy meets and records her hit album "Back to Black," becomes a symbol as it unravels, like Amy's life, throughout the rest of the film.

Amy rides the tidal wave of acclaim brought upon her by the release of "Back to Black," but she is unable to shake her addiction to her husband. No matter how many awards, no matter the wealth or victories lauded upon the singer/songwriter, she cannot move past her love affair with Blake, until she finally hits rock bottom.

What Taylor-Johnson has realized from screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh's script is an unvarnished look at the life of a modern-day celebrity for whom we know tragedy is inevitable. Winehouse's success would pave the path for similarly-styled vocal artists like Duffy and Adele, but she still stands unique among them.

Marisa Abela generously dives into the role, performing her heart out, but it's in the narrows of Amy's decline that we get to see what this actress is truly capable of. The soundtrack is authentic, and the music provides the soul – but Abela brings us the heartbeat.

"Back to Black" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, May 17th.

by JC Alvarez

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".

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