The Amy Winehouse biopic: a lot of drama, little musical story

The Amy Winehouse biopic: a lot of drama, little musical story

What happened to Amy Winehouse's music in “Black to Black”, the musical biopic that aims to tell us about the rise and fall, genius and recklessness of one of the most iconic singer-songwriters of the last century? Nominally, right from the title, the film directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson does not miss any of the stages of the artist's musical career. Having an old fashioned approach, the film tells the entire artistic and human parable of Winehouse, from the beginnings in the jazz clubs of Camden to the last, dramatic day in the life of a world-famous singer.

There is a hint of the stormy relationship with record companies with Amy proudly repeating “I am no Spice Girl”, there is her famous performance at Glastonbury in 2008, until the touching thank you speech that the singer gives when she wins hers fifth Grammy in a single evening: the one for best album to “Back to Black”. There are obviously many songs sung on stage, interpreted by her actress Marisa Abelawho does a great job so as not to disfigure itself in comparison with the emotional voice full of scratch, drama and experience of the singer she interprets.

Abela exaggerates a bit in his emphasis on Winehouse's accent, in reproducing certain grimaces and distinctive expressions, but once he gets the hang of it, his interpretation takes off. The actress manages to focus on the artist she plays: she is the true strength of a film, which instead struggles to keep up with her.

“Back to Black” lacks Amy Winehouse's creative process

Films from which the artist, the singer-songwriter, is missing. It is never easy to convey through images and dialogues the creative process of an artist in general, whether a musician, a writer, a painter. There is something that artists themselves struggle to put into words in their relationship with creativity, inspiration. There is an ineffable gap between the idea and its transformation into something concrete and, often, marketable. The ancients solved it this narrative dilemma with the Muses, the invisible sources of inspiration that whisper in the artist's ear, stand by his side, guide him and protect him.

Cinema has other ways. The problem with “Back to Black” is that chooses the most conventional of all. The very young Amy who picks up the guitar and, in her bedroom, quickly writes a text, strums two notes on the guitar and voilà, the song is ready. It's not that things necessarily didn't go that way, at least at the beginning.

However, the film really struggles to convey one of Amy Winehouse's great talents, which is also evident on a visual level, in her looks and outfits. Winehouse is an icon not so much and not only for her originality in dressing and making music, but for how she did it own a series of vintage elements from multiple eras, mixing them with what is familiar to contemporary audiences, up to derive something profoundly personal from it.

The film he limits himself to quoting Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, the two producers with whom Amy Winehouse worked regularly, to the point of perfecting the process through which she sublimated her growth among vinyl records and jazz legends into pop.

“Back to Black” tells the story of an unconventional personality through banal images

“Back to Black” instead prefers to focus on its other source of inspiration: the tormented love story with Blake Fielder-Civil, “her man” is the protagonist of a good portion of the songs in Winehouse's repertoire.

It is a neutral choice in itself. Blake is such a recurring character in Amy Winehouse's songs and in the media narrative of her that it is impossible to deny the logic behind telling how the ups and downs of her relationship with him influenced her music. It is a precise choice of field, which however leads to the worst outcome, even if fueled by the best intentions.

“Back to Black” in fact has nothing but respect for the woman it talks about. It documents in great detail her nature as refractory to her conventions, her “bad girl” attitude, without judging her. The film follows her in hers inexorable approach to addictions of various kinds, aggravated by the perverse codependency from the relationship with Blake, habitual user of hard drugs.

The problem is precisely that “inexorable”: “Back to Black” doesn't point the finger at anyone, ending up describing, one banality after another, Amy's self-destruction as inevitable, already written, an unfortunate adverse fate. A portrait that clashes with what Amy Winehouse's own songs tell about herself and the people around her. The father and Blake here are more sympathetic than problematic characters, who genuinely love Amy and are largely uninterested in the financial return that being close to her brings. The paparazzi and the media are cardboard figurines with faces distorted by malice: anonymous, stereotyped, relegated to constant background noise.

“Back to Black” doesn't take risks, unlike the artist it talks about

Aside from the soundtrack by Nick Cave, the real absence is, once again, the music. Or better to say, the musical world that surrounded Amy Winehouse, which like the rest of the planet has witnessed its slow destruction live. A musical world that remained on the sidelines, pulling as much pain out of her throat as possible sublimated into songs that remained and that we celebrate today, even if those who created them have left us. Winehouse's case is the sum of other sadly similar stories told recently in other musical biopics starting with Baz Luhrmann's “Elvis”. Film that positions itself at the opposite of the spectrum, putting itself at the center the music industry's manipulation and exploitation of a young artist, taking advantage of its weaknesses.

“Back to Black” does not fail to talk about Amy's weaknesses and insecurities, with respect, inserting a series of stereotyped and banal scenes to do so. A stylistic choice diametrically opposed to the style of an artist and a woman who is became famous precisely for the way she sang herself with disarming honesty, with her heart of her sleeve”, amplifying one's emotions, even the uncomfortable and unpleasant ones, rather than hiding them.

Amy Winehouse has done nothing but take risks in her life, musically and humanly. It's a shame that the film that tells about her doesn't even have the courage to point the finger at the many circumstances and people who at least weren't helpful in her difficult moments, also placing all the responsibility for the epilogue of his artistic and human history on her.

“Back to Black” is in Italian cinemas from 12 April 2024.