After her passing, the most regrettable aspect of Amy Winehouse’s life and career is the paucity of recorded material she left behind. All we have to savour are two studio albums, Frank and Back To Black, and a Hidden Treasures CD that collects most of the odds and sods. All three are alongside me as I type this and, counting up, there are but 38 tracks in total. I wish there was more. 

        That the world lost an enormous talent when Amy overdid the vodka in July, 2011, is made abundantly clear in Back To Black, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s sympathetic biopic, titled after her Grammy winning second LP which has been cited as the most important pop record of the century thus far. In terms of grit, taking control and revealing personal issues in song, it’s magnificent and I wonder whether we’d have had an Adele or Taylor Swift without it. 

        I watched the movie last night in the luxurious Light Cinema at Addlestone. Somehow, the Light’s huge, comfortable seats, spaced well apart, and first-class lounge ambience add an extra star to any movie and this one, unfairly disparaged as pedestrian by many critics in my opinion, deserves four or five, not least for the bravura performance of Marisa Abela as the doomed singer, secure in her own talent yet crossed in love by the roguish Blake Fielder-Civil, played by Jack O’Connell, who leads her into temptation. It’s a tragedy, of course, albeit it one enlivened by fabulous music scenes that lead to a scenario that we know in advance will end in tears.

        The film opens warmly, with Amy as a budding star in a family singsong, its purpose to impose the belief that music runs in her veins, inherited from her practical, taxi-driving dad Mitch, played by Eddie Marsan, and her vivacious, supportive nan Cynthia, to whom she is especially close and who once sang professionally, played by Lesley Manville. The song Amy sings, in which she is joined by her dad, is ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra but also by Tony Bennett, and it serves to stress how music from the swing era, not rock or even soul, informs Amy’s musical background and imagination. 

        Thereafter the film closely follows the trajectory of Amy’s career. We see her composing with a guitar on her bed, her boyfriend sending a rough demo of her songs to a prospective manager who interests Island Records and the recording and release of Frank, her moderately successful debut album. It comes as no surprise that Amy is on the lippy side, displeased when advisers suggest she stop playing guitar on stage and concentrate on her singing and bristling, too, at being managed by the same company that handles The Spice Girls, for whom she harbours a haughty disdain. Such is her frustration at a meeting to address these issues that she walks out and heads for the pub where, in what is by far the film’s most riveting scene, she meets Blake whose courtship dance rivals that of those exotic birds we see angling to mate in David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes. 

        On the positive side, Blake introduces Amy to The Shangri-Las, thus influencing her beehive hairstyle, lovingly created by nan Cynthia, but he’s also responsible for leading her astray which in turn explains the three year delay between Frank and Back To Black. This is largely due to Amy’s mind being elsewhere during their pub crawling and drug abuse, and here we see them cavorting in some familiar locations, Ronnie Scott’s in Soho and Camden’s Dublin Castle and Good Mixer among them. It’s a troubled relationship, with Blake more inclined to walk than Amy, and when he tells her he wants to return to his former girlfriend she’s heartbroken, pouring her sorrow into the songs that became Back In Black. The death from cancer of her beloved nan only adds to her melancholy.  

        When the record’s a hit Blake returns. The idea that he’s after her money, as suggested by an odious friend, is dismissed and although things are still a bit rocky, they marry in Florida, much to Mitch’s disapproval. Soon after Blake is imprisoned for assault but while he’s inside he cleans up his act and opts to end it with Amy who’s broken hearted for a second time. With pressure mounting on her to concentrate on her career and the paparazzi on her heels, dad Mitch persuades her to go into rehab but no sooner is she off the booze than she buys that lovely house in Camden Square where she succumbs to the vodka bottle, this time with fatal results. We are left to assume it was all a terrible accident. 

        As Amy, Marisa Abela is in every scene, never off the screen, whether she is singing on stage or in the studio, and her impersonation of Amy’s vocals are uncanny. She captures Amy’s slightly hesitant stage mannerisms to perfection and also looks, wears make-up and dresses like her. Most of the songs we associate with Amy are included in the soundtrack though unless I missed it I never heard ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ which is surprising considering how the relationship with Blake takes centre stage. Perhaps more importantly, she offers us a side of Amy Winehouse for which I was unprepared: a London girl who sang so well it overwhelmed her yet more than anything wanted simply to find a boy who loved her and would give her a family of her own, just like the one we saw in that opening scene.   


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