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Back to Black,” the 2006 album that the new Amy Winehouse biopic takes its title from, is a record built on an exquisite contradiction. The music has a crispy delicious retro-bop bounce, a quality that extends to Winehouse’s vocals, which take the growling-cat stylings of jazz legends like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday and kick them up into something playfully ferocious. Yet when you tune into the lyrics, they’re as dark as midnight. “Rehab,” the album’s showpiece track, must surely be the jauntiest song ever recorded about an addict who turns the refusal to help herself into a stance of rock ‘n’ roll defiance.

At its best, “Back to Black,” the forthright and compelling new movie that’s been made of Winehouse’s life, takes that light/dark balance and digs into the drama of it, making it sing. The film’s snaky on-and-off power begins with the British actor Marisa Abela, whose lead performance nails Amy Winehouse in every look, mood, utterance, and musical expression. Ever since the trailers and clips from this movie dropped several months ago, there has been a pile-on of Internet sniping about the perceived wrongness of the casting. So let me say for the record: That’s just nuts. Abela’s Amy is an authentic force of nature, and every inch the Winehouse we know from her ecstatic, tormented, spilling-over-the-sides, saturation-coverage-by-the-media image — and from the brilliant Oscar-winning documentary “Amy” (2015), which kicked off the Winehouse renaissance that this movie is the culmination of.

We meet Amy in her relatively polite and decorous youth, when she’s got a pierced upper lip but before she’s found her trademark look (winged mascara, over-the-top beehive). A Jewish teenager from the Camden district of London, she’s devoted to her Nan Cynthia (Lesley Manville), a former ’50s nightclub singer from whom she’ll ultimately lift that poufy period hairdo. Yet Amy is no more a “nice Jewish girl” than Lenny Bruce was the male version of same. From the start, she has an insolent, jutting-toothed, sensually hungry, the-girl-can’t-help-it grin that expresses her raw appetite for life, as well as a tough working-class accent (“together” comes out as “togevuh”) that signals she’s not taking any prisoners.

The film opens in 2002, when she’s already an up-and-coming sensation in the London nightclub scene. At a get-together of relatives in the home of her doting father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan) — her parents are separated, and Amy still lives in a small bedroom in the home of her troubled mother — Amy and Mitch team up for a living-room duet on “Fly Me to the Moon,” and we see the unironic virtuosity that’s her ground floor as a singer.

But the edge is there too. In an episode that provokes a chuckle, but also suggests the lack of boundaries that fuels her art, Amy attracts the interest of Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), a potential manager, when she performs “Stronger Than Me,” a song that basically disses her boyfriend as an emasculated wimp (in the initial meeting with Nick, the boyfriend learns that he’s the dupe of the song and stalks out). Amy, at one point, says that she’s not a feminist because she likes boys too much. But the truth is she’s the incarnation of a new brand of womanly assertion, like Courtney Love reborn as a proudly dissolute jazz diva who has come through the looking glass of hip-hop. The measure of her feminism is that she does whatever she wants; she’s drawn to extremes of hedonistic self-expression, whether it’s how much she drinks, the tattoos she gets on a whim (far more of a novelty and a statement 20 years ago), or the fearless emulation of her jazz heroines. “I’m no fuckin’ Spice Girl,” she tells Nick. That would seem obvious, though it’s a lesson she’s going to keep proving even if it kills her.

Amy records her first album, “Frank” (2003), as a knowingly out-of-time jazz record. She keeps saying that she doesn’t care about money. The album is named after her idol, Frank Sinatra (though the film never clues us into that), which means that she wants to do it her way. But that’s easier said than done once you’ve climbed onto the record-industry ladder. She meets with the executives, who have a few ideas based on the fact that the album wasn’t very commercial. They’d rather not release it in the U.S. (they want to wait for her follow-up album). They think she should stop playing the guitar onstage. Amy’s reaction to all this is to tell them to fuck themselves, and to say: I need to live to write songs, so I’m going to take a major break before I make my next album.

What living turns out to be is falling for the man who’ll be the love of her life, because he’s as charged an addict as she is. The extended sequence in which Amy meets the sexy, indomitable Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) at a pub is a bravura piece of mutual seduction in which the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, shows off her chops. Blake is not an emasculated wimp; his confidence is complete, his suavity bordering on the toxic. Jack O’Connell plays him as a kind of throwback — he’s like a late-’60s British matinee idol (think James Fox or the Michael Caine of “Alfie”) playing a jock with a lightning brain. He knows Amy’s record by heart; he also introduces her, on the jukebox, to the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” lip-syncing to it with gender-blending glee.

But here’s where the movie starts to beckon us onto a rather forbidding track. These two are smitten, fused by an addictive narcissism that doesn’t just run to sloshed flirting in the pub. Blake is into cocaine (and later, we learn, heroin). When he leaves a gig of Amy’s in the middle of a song, all because he’d rather do drugs than listen to her, she comes out into the street and ends up assaulting him. These two have an aggressive chemistry, but they’re breaking up before they’re getting started.

She spins the album “Back to Black” out of how shattered he left her. And it’s a sign of where the film’s priorities lie that we see her recording the irresistibly heartbreak-hooked title track, yet there’s little to no sense of how Winehouse’s masterful second and last album was created (the producer Mark Ronson gets a name-drop, the producer Salaam Remi gets an image drop, and that’s all). The album is a huge hit, making Amy a celebrity stalked by the paparazzi. And Blake takes the album’s message of melancholy as a signal that she’ll take him back. So he calls her, and they get married (basically a Vegas wedding in Miami Beach), and then they’re breaking up all over again.

“Sid and Nancy,” I’m afraid, this is not. We don’t swoon over the dysfunctional passion, the spectacle of two lovelorn addicts who are destined to bring out the worst in each other. Yet without that burning romantic core, “Back to Black” plays out what feels like an authentic but rather clinical version of amour fou.

What about the songs we love from “Black to Black”? Abela’s in-concert renditions of several Winehouse classics have a dilapidated splendor, and her performance of “Rehab” at the 2008 Grammy Awards is perfection. The actor did all her own singing; she gets every soaring and scat-souled nuance. The songs are all in there, but not in a way that feels, at each moment, like they’re expressing something so emotionally necessary that it becomes cathartic. Amy, contrary to her mythology, does end up in rehab. Near the end of her life, she gets clean, as Janis Joplin did. But that isn’t enough to keep her from becoming a member of the cautionary club of pop stars who died at 27 (Janis, Jimi, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain). Her self-destruction is on full display in “Back to Black.” Yet the film presents it, even revels in it, without giving you the sense that it fully understands it.



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