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Paul Vallely: Back to Black gives Amy Winehouse her voice back  

03 May 2024

Critics miss the real point of this biographical drama, writes Paul Vallely


Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black

HOW do we tell the story of a life? The new film about Amy Winehouse — the immensely talented singer, who lived in a destructive disorder of drugs and drink, and died of alcohol poisoning at the age of just 27 — has attracted very mixed reviews. For the wrong reasons.

It’s not the first film about the tragic life of this young jazz singer with the voice of an old musician from a long-gone era. Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary, Amy, was, in the words of one critic, “a disaster movie fixated on tragedy”. In 2021, her family responded with an altogether more sympathetic portrait, Reclaiming Amy, on the tenth anniversary of her death.

Now, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black has been slated as a “poor piece of filmmaking” that is a mere “Saturday-night impersonation” of the singer and “lacks the integrity to carry us through the depth of the artist’s soul”. Critics have variously complained about what the film did not say or show, and whom it did not blame. Most grievously, it does not point the finger at her former husband — the man who introduced her to heroin — or her father, whom Kapadia depicted as a domineering and exploitative presence.

In part, the problem here is the assumption that a film about a historical character has a duty to be historically accurate. In part, it is a failure to understand that any storyteller inevitably has a philosophical stance behind their narrative purpose.

Christians, above all, should understand this. Enemies of the faith have long mocked inconsistencies and even contradictions in the four Gospel accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus as evidence of irrationality at the heart of the religion. The truth is, of course, that the Evangelists each offered distinct emphases for distinct audiences: Matthew is concerned to prove to Jews that Jesus was the Messiah; Mark writes for people of power among the Romans; Luke appeals to educated Greeks; and John is anxious to form a clear theology.

Taylor-Johnson has a distinctive purpose in this latest account of Winehouse. She is not concerned to apportion blame, or to highlight the contradictions in the Winehouse biography. Rather, she has set out to make a film that is non-judgemental, and which sets out this sad story through the eyes of the young woman at its centre.

So, it is uncritical of her father and her husband, because they were the men whom she loved — and her bad-boy husband was the catalyst for her greatest collection of music, from which the film takes its name. Healthy or unhealthy, these were the relationships with the two men whom Amy cherished most in her life. If the film has a villain, it is addiction, and the pitiless paparazzi and mercenaries of the music industry.

Perhaps her life was tragic. Certainly, the repeated retelling of it can make it so. But there is another way. Taylor-Johnson’s avowed intent was to celebrate: “to take her to a place where she had her agency back”. She wanted to make the audience, leaving the cinema, wish to go home to listen again to fabulous music filled with paradox and passion — and that gives Amy Winehouse her voice back.

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