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 - Juliëtte Ronteltap -

There are moments in our lives about which we all remember where we were when it happened and how we felt about it. For me, Amy Winehouse's death in 2011 was definitely such a moment. I distinctly remember being on holiday in Germany with my father that summer. We were sitting on a sunny terrace when we heard the news. Although I obviously did not know Amy personally, I was hugely affected.

Coincidentally (or not), my father is also the one I went to the premiere of Back to Black with. This was during a Ladies Night, so I initially asked some female friends if they wanted to go with me, but eventually thought, 'Why shouldn't a man go?' After all, my father is a big Amy Winehouse fan and has all her records. The same applies to me to some extent. As a drummer, I got to perform her songs and in that sense she has meant a lot to me as well.

Talented actress

Right at the start of the film, I was overwhelmed by the enormous talent of actress Marisa Abela, who plays the role of Amy Winehouse. Her voice is so similar to that of the actual singer that my father and I doubted that sound clips of Amy herself had not been used. Afterwards, we found out that the actress trained to make her voice sound like that. So I completely disagree with what I think are unnecessarily critical reviews that her voice “sufficiently approximates” the original. Besides, she also manages to realistically portray the singer with her appearance, facial expressions and manner of speaking.

What I also want to praise is the way the film gives context to Amy Winehouse's songs, above all Back to Black, which is also the – fitting – title of the film. After all, this song is about her great love Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell), who had a huge impact on her life over the years. You see in a very realistic way how they meet in a local pub and how they are immediately drawn to each other. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that this relationship is quite toxic, as they are both addiction-prone and reinforce the negative aspects in each other. What is nice about this film, however, is that while the addiction is by no means hidden, Amy is also not defined solely by her addiction. Critics believe that the film romanticises addiction, but there are plenty of scenes with embarrassing moments, black outs and even domestic violence. The film portrays this as due to circumstances, rather than blaming Blake for it.

Role of Amy’s father

Another figure previously cast in a bad light, mainly because of the 2015 documentary Amy, is Amy's father Mitchell Winehouse. He allegedly put making money first rather than his daughter's health. Now, it is true that he is portrayed too positively in Back to Black. This is because otherwise the film could not get rights to use Amy's music. For instance, you see how Amy and “Mitch” (Eddie Marsan) happily sing songs together during a family gathering and how he later takes her to rehab when she asks him to. However, he doesn't get off completely scot-free. There is a moment when Amy's management complains about her alcohol consumption and he assures them that she is fine – which is clearly not the case. A continually positive influence on Amy, however, was her grandmother Cynthia (LesLey Manville), who was her great role model as a style icon. Thus, when her father says her grandmother would have been proud, Amy responds that this is not the case and she is ashamed: ‘I’ve become one of them now, an addict.’

Accurate portrayal vs tribute

This film impressed me a lot: while it is not a completely accurate portrayal of Amy's life, it is a wonderful tribute to her as a musician and person. The reason given for her eventual relapse and death seems like a projection by the makers. Very respectfully, however, Amy's death is not portrayed, but things end at a point where everything is relatively fine – although there is already a clear shadow hanging over it.

One criterion I use to judge whether a film is good or not is whether I would watch it again. My answer in this case is a resounding ‘yes’. Besides, the focus on Amy as a person rather than a victim and the influence of strong women like Cynthia on her life make this an attractive film for HWP audiences.


Image: © Studio Canal (2024)


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