Producers: Alison Owen, Debra Hayward and Nicky Kentish Barnes  Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson    Screenplay: Matt Greenhalgh   Cast: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan, Harley Bird, Ansu Kabia, Therica Wilson-Read, Bronson Webb, Ryan O’Doherty, Spike Fearn, Francesca Henry, Liv Longbourne, Thelma Ruby, Matilda Thorpe, Pete Lee-Wilson and Miltos Yerolemou   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: C

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film joins the recent spate of musical biographies designed to plug into both the public’s obsession with the lives of celebrities, especially those who met tragic ends, and their simultaneous desire for nostalgic satisfaction.  Taylor-Johnson, whose debut feature “Nowhere Boy” (2010), also penned by this film’s screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, was about the young John Lennon, here tackles the meteoric career and self-destructive life of English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.  Her second (and last) studio album, after which the film is titled, won five Grammys in 2008, but her substance abuse and a toxic marriage—as well as hounding from the press—contributed to severe emotional deterioration, and she died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning at age twenty-seven.

Skipping her childhood, Greenhalgh’s treatment begins in the early 2000s, when Winehouse (Marisa Abela) is introduced in her late teens at a family gathering in the house of her dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan), with whom she performs a duet while her doting grandmom Cynthia (Leslie Manville) looks on.  Nan, a former singer herself, had been instrumental in instilling a love of jazz in the girl (as well as influencing what became a signature beehive hairdo), and Amy was already performing in her singular style at a London club while still living with her mother Janis (Juliet Cowan), from whom Mitch was separated.

In this account, a friend, singer Tyler James (Spike Fearn) brought her to the attention of Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), who became her manager and secured her a contract with a record label that released her first album, “Frank,” in 2003.  Even then her independence and refusal to be controlled was evident.  So was her inclination to emotional cruelty: she’d driven away a boyfriend she’d tired of by writing a song insulting him and then performing it as he watched.    

Not long afterward Winehouse met Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), at a London pub; they bonded immediately—he supposedly introduced her to the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” which impacted her work—and he dumped his then-girlfriend (Therica Wilson-Read) for her.  Their relationship was volatile—they split up repeatedly before finally marrying abruptly in 2007—and their passion was fueled by drugs; it also inspired the songs on “Back to Black.” But the marriage was ruptured when Fielder-Civil was convicted in 2008 for bribing his victim in a 2006 bar fight and sent to prison.  Though Winehouse tried to kick her habit and support him when he was behind bars, he announced his desire for a divorce during one of her visits, which worsened her condition—as did harassment from the press over her increasingly bizarre behavior, which culminated in her alcohol dependence and death.

This is a very depressing story relieved only by the reality of Winehouse’s talent, which is showcased in Abela’s committed recreations of her performances, like a memorable one at the 2008 Grammy ceremony.  Abela is also unstinting in embracing Winehouse’s wild, uninhibited persona offstage. But inevitably both her acting and her singing have a studied quality, as comparison with the real thing—available on line (and in Asif Kapadia’s fine 2015 documentary “Amy”).  It’s an excellent impression, but nonetheless feels like just that.  And Taylor-Johnson’s treatment never gets much beyond the surface level, descending by the close to the hackneyed cliché of likening Winehouse to a bird in a gilded cage.          

The film is no less superficial in dealing with the two main figures in her life, Fielder-Civil and Mitch. Both have been criticized for being more interested in what Winehouse could bring them—money—than in her wellbeing (the actual Mitch complained bitterly over the way he was depicted in Kapadia’s portrait), but here they receive fairly gentle treatment.  In O’Connell’s hands Fielder-Civil comes across more like a charming rogue than a seedy hanger-on, while the droopy-faced Marsan makes Mitch seem hapless and oblivious rather than a crass enabler—though admittedly both actors adeptly put across the characters as written.  The most engaging of the supporting players, though, is undoubtedly Manville, who embodies the ageing grande dame Nan with flair; since the character is also terminally ill, she also effortlessly gains our sympathy, something that Abela, for all her histrionic displays, never quite manages.

The picture has been well mounted (production design by Sarah Greenwood, costumes by PC Williams, cinematography by Polly Morgan), with special attention given to hair and makeup (Kristin Chalmers); and it moves well enough (the editing is by Laurence Johnson and Martin Walsh). It also sounds fine, with an evocative background sore from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and close attention given to the careful recreation of Winehouse’s performances.

In the end, though, this is more a standard-issue musical biography than a truly revealing portrait.  It works well enough as a basic rise-and-fall tale about a talented but troubled artist, but Kapadia’s documentary digs deeper and is more affecting.