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film review

Back to Black

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Written by Matt Greenhalgh

Starring Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell and Lesley Manville

Classification 14A; 122 minutes

Opens in theatres May 17

From the millisecond this biopic of Amy Winehouse – the incendiary English jazz-pop singer/supernova who died of alcohol poisoning at age 27 in 2011 – was announced, fans and pundits derided it.

Winehouse’s drug addictions, bulimia and romantic travails were picked clean in her lifetime; why disinter the bones so soon after her death, especially since a well-regarded documentary, Amy, had won an Oscar in 2016? Why would director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) involve Winehouse’s father Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan in the film), when he’s been widely accused of using his daughter for his own gain? How dare Taylor-Johnson shoot a funeral scene at the cemetery where Winehouse is buried, or a scene of Winehouse overdosing in her Camden flat – in her real Camden flat? Why cast Marisa Abela (HBO’s Industry) as Amy and Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) as Blake Fielder-Civil – whose tumultuous relationship was the inspiration for Back to Black, Winehouse’s powerhouse, multi-Grammy-winning second (and final) album – even though they don’t look exactly like the couple?

Most crucially, how can anyone make a film about someone so exploited without further exploiting her?

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Taylor-Johnson’s answer is a straightforward depiction of the painful events we all witnessed, softened by a compassionate imagining of how Winehouse might have gotten there. She scrupulously shows every event from Winehouse’s point of view, and spends a lot of screen time on the singer as a young woman, prefame: her Jewish roots and love of jazz, her close relationship with her beloved grandmother (Lesley Manville), her preternatural vocal talent and soul-scraping honesty in songwriting, her ambition, her impulsiveness and her stubborn independence.

The film’s best sequence is a knockout, a kind of romance-within-the-film, set during a languid yet charged afternoon when Winehouse first meets Fielder-Civil in a Camden pub. As they play pool and flirt, feigning indifference while studying each other, we see them begin to glow – because nothing is more intoxicating than a person who sees your best self. When they “accidentally” brush up against one another, we feel their skin tingle and their breath quicken; we feel them get one another, for better and worse.

Winehouse’s glory was her singularity – the fact she was uncopyable – but Abela, who does her own singing, manages her impossible assignment (mostly) well: Although her London accent can be too marble-mouthed, she conveys Winehouse’s rawness and raucous spark. O’Connell captures Fielder-Civil’s charm, but in striving to give Winehouse agency (and possibly to avoid legal action), the filmmakers let him off too easily.

Open this photo in gallery:

Abela, who does her own singing, conveys Winehouse’s rawness and raucous spark. Jack O’Connell, meanwhile, captures Blake Fielder-Civil’s charm, but the filmmakers let him off too easily.Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Fe/Supplied

Taylor-Johnson does not shy away from controversy; all four of her features have some. In her first, Nowhere Boy, she dared to imagine the life of a young John Lennon – then fell in love with and subsequently married her leading man, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is 24 years her junior. While making Fifty Shades of Grey, she famously stood up to the novels’ author, E.L. James, and walked away from the two sequels. And she directed A Million Little Pieces after its source memoir was discredited and scorned.

The tenderest thing Taylor-Johnson does in Back to Black is remind us how very young Winehouse was when she wowed the world. The question the film does not answer – the one Winehouse’s aggrieved fans are still grieving – is how a woman so gifted and alive could implode and disappear in full public view, and why no one could stop her.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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