Blistering biopic of jazz world’s self-destructive demise

Blistering biopic of jazz world’s self-destructive demise Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black (2024).

Few people have names more applicable to the way they lived than Amy Winehouse. How many hours did she spend in such establishments?

She died at 27, thereby becoming a member of the ‘27 Club’, an ill-fated gathering of rock legends that also included people like Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

They all died at that ridiculously young age, thereby issuing a stark warning to anyone else with a similar hard-living lifestyle.

Marisa Abela is a brilliant lookalike – and soundalike – for Winehouse in Back to Black (15), a captivating reconstruction of her ‘Chanel Number Pub’ life. It gets its title from her album of the same name. It became the best-selling one of the century after she died.

Sam Taylor-Johnson chronicles her meteoric rise from rudimentary guitar-strumming in Camden to megastardom before drink and drugs wrest it away from her. “Music is my rehab,” she crows. But then “real” rehab looms.

Beginning with scenes featuring her touching relationship with her beloved gran (Lesley Manville) and concerned, bewildered, father (Eddie Marsan) it segues into a clunky marriage to ‘bad boy’ Blake (Jack O’Connell) before love proves to be a ‘losing game’. His raffishness precipitates her nadir as the klieg lights of foraging paparazzi vultures tip her over the edge.

Abela radiates an electric charge as the jazz aficion who refuses to bend the knee to the ‘suits’ who want to manufacture her US career robotically. Her gran warns her not to turn into another Charlie Parker. He died at 35, she says… looking 60.

But already, we feel, it’s too late.

Singers who die young are frozen in time. They’re like the elfin Winehouse or the Adonis-like Morrison. In cinema we think of James Dean in his leather jacket astride his motorcar rather than crushed like a cigarette packet inside it on a Cholame highway. Or the impossibly beautiful Marilyn Monroe flashing that 1000-watt smile at us instead of clutching a telephone cable in a run-down house in Brentwood after taking an overdose of Nembutal.

In the past year we’ve seen the premature deaths of three of our own musical icons – Christy Dignam, Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor. All three clung to life despite their problems or excesses.

Winehouse didn’t. In this she resembled Billie Holiday, another victim of addiction. Winehouse sounds very much like her here. Holiday lived until she was 44. That’s practically geriatric for substance abusers in the music cosmos.

Winehouse is iconic today. We may not remember where we were when she died like we do for Elvis or JFK but she was the present generation’s especial prodigy, wailing her way to nirvana.

In the early years of this century as I read almost daily reports of her indulgences I thought of how tiny she looked, how waifish, how fragile.

People like Amy shuffle off the mortal coil almost nonchalantly. We can only console ourselves with the wonderful musical legacies they’ve bequeathed us.