The one thing that Back to Black gets right

Is it surprising that Back to Black, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s hotly anticipated biopic of Amy Winehouse, is garnering such mixed reviews? It’s currently 52% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with top film critics awarding it everything from one to four stars. Probably not – Winehouse wasn’t just one of the most influential musicians of her generation, but also an incredibly complex person to capture. Asif Kapadia, director of an Oscar-winning documentary about the singer that many regard as definitive, 2015’s Amy, described her as “an amazing contradiction in every way”. After conducting more than 100 interviews with Winehouse’s family and friends, Kapadia came to the conclusion that she was “a very shy girl who’s [also] a show-off”.

Warning: This article contains language that some readers may find offensive.

Taylor-Johnson’s film about Winehouse, which arrives in UK cinemas this weekend before opening in the US on 17 May, is perhaps too brisk and conventional to capture all facets of the singer’s stratospheric rise and desperately sad demise. A few months before she died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011, aged just 27, Winehouse had underlined her high standing in the music industry by recording a duet, a cover of the 1930s jazz standard Body and Soul, with her musical hero Tony Bennett. But Back to Black does deserve credit for reminding us that as well as being a very famous woman dealing with “demons” – a simplistic shorthand for her eating disorder, addictions and tempestuous marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil – Winehouse was thrillingly unfiltered and very funny. British actress Marisa Abela, who gamely uses her own singing voice in the film instead of lip-syncing to Winehouse’s versions of signature hits including Rehab and Valerie, shows her spunky side beautifully.

In one of the film’s strongest scenes, we see Winehouse arriving at her record company’s London offices in a buoyant mood. Within minutes, she’s crushed by the news that her debut album, 2003’s striking jazz-hip-hop hybrid Frank, won’t be getting a US release. “There is strong competition from Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua and Joss Stone,” an executive tells her, putting her in the same category as three other young British artists with vaguely jazzy and soulful sounds. When Winehouse leaves the meeting, she makes her feelings on this reductive comparison abundantly clear by repeating Melua’s name with a judiciously chosen expletive. It’s a winning moment because it feels so believable: Winehouse always had a bullish self-belief in her songwriting talent and retro-leaning musical taste.

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Back in 2004, when a TV interviewer clumsily compared her to Dido – a decidedly less edgy artist than Winehouse – she could barely hide her disdain. It’s a clip so free of fakery and media-trained blandness that it’s still being shared on TikTok two decades later. In another clip that has become popular on TikTok, a social media platform that wasn’t launched until five years after her death, Winehouse is asked about her performance at the 2008 Brit Awards a few minutes after coming offstage. She delivers a damning verdict, then tells the presenter sweetly: “You look fit though.” It’s the sort of utterly genuine human interaction that few A-list artists are capable of pulling off.

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