Amy Winehouse biopic tells an incomplete story

When Amy Winehouse burst onto the world stage in the mid-2000s, she was the most exciting thing to happen to music in years. At a time when rock was in recycling mode and hip-hop had become bubble gum, here came this skinny, working-class Brit who harkened back to everything that was dangerous and sexy in music: Ronnie Spector’s hive mind, Johnny Rotten’s attitude and a blues-boozy voice full of raw emotion. “Rehab,” the 2006 single that made Winehouse famous, had a funky, snotty hook that summed up her bad girl persona: “I won’t go, go, go!”

She eventually went, but to no avail: within five years she was dead at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biographical drama “Back to Black” – named after the album that earned Winehouse five Grammys – bills itself as a celebration of an artist who died too soon. That’s commendable, but the film sometimes seems unwilling to confront the ugliness that marred the singer’s life. (The screenplay is by Matt Greenhalgh, who delved much deeper in his Ian Curtis biopic “Control.”)

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When Amy Winehouse burst onto the world stage in the mid-2000s, she was the most exciting thing to happen to music in years. At a time when rock was in recycling mode and hip-hop had become bubble gum, here came this skinny, working-class Brit who harkened back to everything that was dangerous and sexy in music: Ronnie Spector’s hive mind, Johnny Rotten’s attitude and a blues-boozy voice full of raw emotion. “Rehab,” the 2006 single that made Winehouse famous, had a funky, snotty hook that summed up her bad girl persona: “I won’t go, go, go!”

She eventually went, but to no avail: within five years she was dead at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biographical drama “Back to Black” – named after the album that earned Winehouse five Grammys – bills itself as a celebration of an artist who died too soon. That’s commendable, but the film sometimes seems unwilling to confront the ugliness that marred the singer’s life. (The screenplay is by Matt Greenhalgh, who delved much deeper in his Ian Curtis biopic “Control.”)

“Back to Black” has a real find in Marisa Abela, the relative unknown who plays Winehouse. She doesn’t look much like the singer, but she captures her spirit: a wisp of a thing, not much more than a girl, but with the baggage of an adult. Where Winehouse got such a hole in her soul isn’t entirely clear: she has an overindulgent father (Eddie Marsan as Mitch), a doting grandmother (Leslie Manville as Cynthia Levy) and a checked-out mother (Juliet Cowan as Janis). Even before the pressures of fame, Winehouse has a drinking problem, an eating disorder and a tendency to jump into bed with the nearest bad boy.

The one who steals her heart is Blake Fielder-Civil, a charming layabout who becomes her husband and causes much of the heartache that would flow through Winehouse’s songs. (He’s played by a charismatic Jack O’Connell, of the British television show “Skins.”) Here’s where “Back to Black” may surprise Winehouse fans: In the British press, Fielder-Civil was cast as a parasitic druggie — the Nancy to Winehouse’s Sid, but in this estate-approved film he’s very likable. Not only is he the one who crucially opens her ears to the Shangri-Las (a crucial influence), he is also a voice of reason, the first to identify their relationship as “codependent.” As he searches the streets for the woman who once again bloodily clawed his face, Fielder-Civil often looks less like the flame and more like the moth.

“Back to Black” strangely ignores Mark Ronson, the producer who created Winehouse’s signature retro sound; he is mentioned but never seen. More importantly, it completely sidesteps Winehouse’s final, year-long spiral that played out before a bewildered and fascinated audience. (For that crucial part of the story, see “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary.) This film clearly has a lot of love for its subject. However, love was never enough to save her.