Comfortable and Furious

Back to Black

“Back to Black” – Tabloid fodder.

“Why does this movie exist?” – countless anonymous moviegoers.

I’m sure you’ve heard that question before, usually regarding sequels or remakes. Or maybe you heard it as a statement – “Nobody asked for this movie.” Or how about “who is this movie even for?” Rather than respond, you should ignore the person asking or just make a gesture at them that means “MONEY, FOOL!!” Yes, the gesture should infer all-caps. But after watching the new Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black, I couldn’t help but wonder not “why does this movie exist,” but more precisely, “what was this movie trying to say?”

It only took a few minutes into Back to Black before I started to think it was trying to say Amy Winehouse is a shit of a human being, but with a great set of pipes. The film starts with Amy (Marisa Abela) looking through her grandmother Cynthia’s (Lesley Manville) memory box, asking if she can take it home with her, and Cynthia agreeing if Amy agrees to take special care of it. A brief while later, Amy randomly bursts into song in a room full of relatives enjoying someone else’s music. At the end of the night, her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) drives her home, chiding Amy about forgetting the memory box after she exits the car and starts walking away. This, after the two get into an argument just moments before.

The next few scenes build on this depiction of Amy, creating a character who comes off as an entitled, immature, impatient brat pissing on everyone who is trying to help her get recognized and established as a singer. This includes her friend Tyler (Spike Fearn), who has been pushing Amy’s demo tapes and finally made a breakthrough with Island Records. Through all of this, she almost always has a drink in her hand, disdain on her face, and an ill-natured comment spewing from her mouth. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of how this story ends, and feels like this movie believes that maybe Amy deserved it.

Because Amy can sing, her first album “Frank” is a success. But the record label wants to change her stage act to make her more marketable in the USA, essentially admitting they want her to show more of her body. This angers Amy (while also reinforcing her bulimia) and she storms out of a meeting while berating Tyler and informing him she’s taking a break to “live her music.” While cozied up to a bar nursing a drink, Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) sashays into her life and Amy is immediately smitten. I’d like to tell you that Blake is a positive influence in her life, but Matt Greenhalgh’s script and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s directing are not the least bit interested in putting Amy in a positive light.

I should mention that I knew next to nothing about Amy Winehouse before this movie. I knew her name and that she sang an ear-wormingly annoying song called “Rehab” that a lot of people seemed to really enjoy. Going into this film, I was hoping to learn why so many people liked her and why her death was seemingly such a big deal. As the movie continued to paint Amy as the most unsympathetic person possible, I realized my hope was going to go unfulfilled. When Amy wasn’t screaming at people about not caring about money, fame, or even (at times) her music, she was beating up Blake, getting blackout drunk, and dismissing her roommate’s requests for Amy to be even mildly respectful of her. She even manages to come off as the jerk in a scene where she refuses to do cocaine with Blake.

As Amy continues to spiral toward her demise, the film refuses to examine any of the motivations behind Amy’s issues or how her music is connected to her life. When did the bulimia start and why? Why does she hate her parents but revere her grandmother? What is the relationship really like between Amy and her father? Once Amy hits it big with her second album “Back to Black,” the film’s only concern is tearing apart what’s left of Amy until a final title card appears informing the viewer of Amy’s death from alcohol poisoning at age 27.

Dead grandmother, sudden jump into heroin addiction, marrying Blake and descending into a months-long blackout of alcohol, drugs, and abusing Blake, Blake going to prison and divorcing her, an extremely reluctant stint in rehab for Amy, barely being able to enjoy the most successful night at the Grammys for a British woman ever (5 awards) because she wasn’t allowed to be there (failed drug tests), performing “Rehab” in a way that can only be described as pure spite, and finally drinking herself to death after a paparazzo yells about Blake’s new family and child.

So…what was this movie trying to say? Movies typically try to get the audience to sympathize with the main character. Biopics in particular usually try to present their subjects in multiple lights, offering a mix of positive and negative things, from large events to the smallest nuances, in order to give the audience the ability to decide how they feel about the person presented to them. Back to Black actively wants the audience to hate Amy Winehouse.

Almost everything we see is designed to turn the audience against Amy, including sometimes painting Blake and her father as victims of Amy. Throw in a deliberately vague and misleading timeline (one example – the film makes it seem like Amy wrote “Rehab” while in rehab, but she actually wrote and released that song prior to going to rehab) and it’s hard not to conclude this film was anything but a tabloidesque hit-piece of Amy. That and I still know next to nothing about Amy Winehouse.

Rating: Ask for all your money back and no further questions.







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