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‘Back to Black’

Earlier this week, I said—in essence—that I didn’t see the point of the film Civil War. Maybe I’m in a strange mood, because I felt the same after seeing Back to Black. Perhaps I just don’t understand cinema.

Back to Black is a biographical drama based on the life of Amy Winehouse, who is brilliantly played by Marisa Abela. It is an unremitting sympathetic portrayal of Winehouse and virtually everyone else in her life—to the point where it doesn’t really hang together as saying much of anything at all.

I suppose the first decision a biographer in any format must make is to decide on the questions they want to interrogate about the life they are covering. Even to me, someone who didn’t especially follow Amy Winehouse’s life or career, it seems as though it had a rich tapestry, as though she existed mostly in shades of grey rather than black or white.

It might have been interesting to interrogate the thought processes behind her compositions; but this film just repeatedly features her sitting alone and suddenly singing line upon line of perfect lyrics. There is no process.

It might have been interesting to interrogate the influence of her use of alcohol and cannabis on her songwriting; but in this film, alcohol and drugs are portrayed only in the negative.

It might have been interesting to interrogate how success and fame changed her approach to her art; but in this film, they bring only intrusive paparazzi.

Really, the film doesn’t ask any questions. It turns a short but storied life and a remarkable talent into a sympathetic melodrama featuring nothing but blandly ‘nice’ people.

It feels almost like the writer decided that the film should portray some of the life events that inspired the songs without realising that the songs’ emotional heft comes from being personal, opinionated, and true. Show them as based on a sanitised, black-and-white version of the truth comes off as inauthentic.

This is a middle-of-the-road, inoffensive film about a character who was neither of those things. In the end, that’s just a weird choice.

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