"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Film. Harry Mount. Back to Black (15)

Pursuits | By Harry Mount

Marisa Abela




At one point in this biopic about Amy Winehouse, she’s sitting, dejected, in Soho Square when she spots a lone fox.

Uh-oh! Ever since that stag kept popping up in The Queen (2006), we know that hunted animals stand in for hunted humans on the big screen.

And poor Amy was hunted. I saw her several times in Camden, being goaded by paparazzi into lashing out to conjure up a good photo. And that hunted, tragic life, Camden paparazzi included, is well-caught in this moving – if sometimes a bit creaky – film.

You’d have to know the Amy Winehouse story – meteoric rise to pop fame; dead from an alcoholic overdose at 27 – to enjoy the film.

But it’s best not to watch it if you’re an obsessive fan. For some mysterious reason – presumably financial – Winehouse’s songs are sung by Marisa Abela, the actress who plays her, rather than by Winehouse herself.

The same happened with Renée Zellweger singing Judy Garland’s songs in Judy (2019).

Zellweger has an impressive voice but, in a film about a brilliant singer, surely it’s best to use the original voice.

Still, Abela has a pretty lovely voice, too. She captures Winehouse’s charm and emulates the scarily thin ragdoll – a beehive on a lollipop stick – she became in her last months. She also nails down Winehouse’s elusive, contrary character: the old-fashioned Jewish girl who doted on her grandmother but was fatally attracted to bad boy Blake Fielder-Civil.

Jack O’Connell is gifted at oozing the paper-thin charm of Amy’s Cockney cheeky chappie.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh have done a professional job.

But, in a way, the film writes itself – the real story is so like a fairy tale gone wrong that it makes an ideal plot. Suburban girl becomes megastar; megastar meets bad boy; bad boy dumps megastar; megastar joins the 27 Club of pop stars who die at that tragically early age.

It helps, too, that Winehouse’s most famous songs are autobiographical. Lots of pop musicals, not least Mamma Mia!, have to retrofit a group’s songs onto a flimsy story. In Winehouse’s case, her songs tell her gripping, melancholy life story with eerie prescience.

Back to Black is about Fielder-Civil going back to his old girlfriend: ‘I died a hundred times/You go back to her.’

And Rehab is about her catastrophic attempts to clean up her drink and drug habits: ‘They tried to make me go to rehab/But I said no, no, no.’

He is played movingly as a charming, witty dad by Eddie Marsan. But, as the 2015 documentary Amy showed, Mitch, an aspiring crooner, wasn’t averse to the limelight himself. In that documentary, while she was in rehab in St Lucia, he suddenly cropped up, filming his own documentary, to her deep consternation.

It’s almost always the case that a documentary is better than a biopic at telling the truth. And so it is with Amy Winehouse: her genius and tragedy are inevitably more palpable in the documentary Amy.

Her life, character and talent were so enormously compelling that they brought her the fame that killed her. They also mean that, in its new incarnation as a biopic, her tragedy draws you in, transfixed once more.

This story was from May 2024 issue. Subscribe Now