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Film Reviews: Back to Black and Tish

Arts Review2024-5-17By: Classical Staff


British Women Artists—Compelling Lives on Screen 

Back to Black and Tish

By Marc Glassman


Back to Black

Sam Taylor-Johnson, director

Matt Greenhalgh, script

Starring: Marissa Abela (Amy Winehouse), Jack O’Connell (Blake Fielder-Civil), Eddie Marsan (Mitch Winehouse), Lesley Manville (Cynthia Winehouse), Juliet Cowan (Janis Collins-Winehouse), Sam Buchanan (Nick Shymansky)


Amy Winehouse was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, whose soulful voice sang beyond the confines of her own generation to reach lovers everywhere of jazz, torch songs, rhythm and blues, bossa nova and American pop music. Born into a working class Jewish family in Northeast London, she was a tough-talking rebel, a “bad girl,” whose honest no-holds-barred attitude towards life and music attracted both women and men. At the age of 23, she recorded “Back to Black,” the gorgeous, hopelessly romantic, propulsive ballad, which she co-wrote, that became a Grammy-award winning hit and placed her in the first rank of vocal stars. But by 27, the storied final year for so many pop stars from Hendrix to Joplin to Morrison, Amy Winehouse died, burned out by substance abuse—and, many would say, despair over her personal life.

The broad outlines of the Amy Winehouse story have been known for years, and there is clearly a public waiting to see a proper dramatic adaptation of her life. Those who love her work want to get a sense of what happened to such a great talent, gone all too soon. So, expectations have been riding high on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film version of the Winehouse story, Back to Black

Taylor-Johnson, whose career began as a bold member of the acclaimed Young British Artists of the Nineties, has done a fine job casting the film. Her biggest decision was in finding someone to play Amy Winehouse: the film could only work with the proper person in the lead. Taylor-Johnson discovered a RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) trained actor, Marissa Abela, who had appeared on television but never sung professionally before this production. 

Astonishingly, Abela is more than up for the task: her singing is phenomenal, and she is very persuasive as Winehouse, playing her in a variety of dramatic situations, ranging from willful—towards her producers; to loving—to her dad and grandmother; to angry—to the paparazzi who hound her and producers who wanted to mold her; to passionate—to Blake, the love of her life. Abela’s total commitment to the role of Amy Winehouse makes Back to Black a very watchable film.

Abela is aided by the two of the finest actors on the English scene: Eddie Marsan playing Amy’s dad Mitch and Leslie Manville as her grandmother, Cynthia. Both impart a nitty-gritty realism to their performances, making you appreciate Amy’s background as a gifted young woman, who loved stories and songs from her family’s heritage and totally embraced those who cared for her. The most emotionally satisfying scenes in the film are the ones between Manville and Abela, which makes one appreciate the profound relationship that can happen between a girl and her grandmother. 

Marsan, an absolute pro, who has played roles ranging from the Victorian-era Inspector Lastrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films to a physically challenged American ex-boxer in the Ray Donovan TV series to an abusive car instructor in Mike Leigh’s brilliant Happy Go Lucky, is truly exceptional as Amy’s problematic but loving father, Mitch. 

The only drawback in terms of casting is Jack O’Connell, who is good but not great as Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of Amy’s life. Perhaps the problem is that O’Connell doesn’t seem sexy or charismatic enough to persuade anyone that he would make Amy love, and, indeed, become so obsessed with him. The only scene where O’ Connell really works some magic is when Blake acts out the role of the “Leader of the Pack” as he and Amy listen to the Shangri-La’s’ iconic Sixties hit. (Perhaps Amy related to an American girl group whose lead singer was also a working class Jew.) But apart from that brilliant sequence, it’s hard to figure how Blake dominated her life—and, even worse, got Amy involved with drugs.

Back in Black’s real difficulty as a film is that Taylor-Johnson and scriptwriter Matt Greenhalgh haven’t come to grips with Winehouse’s tragic life. A brilliant singer, who loved and could emulate jazz icons like Sarah Vaughn and girl group legends such as the Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector while having the soulful power of an Aretha Franklin, lost herself to heroin and alcohol and abusive relationships. The film refuses to dramatize the upsetting but true “act three” of Amy Winehouse’s life. Instead, Back to Black repetitively offers us Winehouse doing nothing to address a downhill pull into her life until it’s way too late—and then, depleted, she dies. 

Still, there is much to appreciate in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black—particularly the music and Abela’s performance. The best part of Amy Winehouse’s life is her music and it’s great to hear so much of it. Flawed though it is, Back to Black is a film worth enjoying its gripping evocation of the truncated but exceptional life of Amy Winehouse. 



Dir: Paul Sng

Featuring: Ella Murtha, Maxine Peake (Tish’s voice), Tish Murtha (archival photos)


A documentary made out of love and respect for the film’s subject, Tish is not only a portrait of a brilliant photographer but also a moving evocation of the disaster that was visited upon Northeast England during the time of Margaret Thatcher. Director Paul Sng has worked closely with Ella Murtha to reveal the life of her mother Patricia Anne “Tish” Murtha, who used photography as a tool to focus on the harsh inequities of the country’s class system, which went from bad to worse during the Thatcher era, when the social net constructed in post-World War Two England was torn asunder by her right wing Tory regime. Young, beautiful, and fierce, Tish had a poet’s eyes and a humanist’s heart, and she used her talents in service of her people, the proud impoverished lot who lived in Tyneside, the industrial region dominated by Newcastle, where the miners and factory workers had their unions devastated by Thatcher’s military and police. 

The film uses the extraordinary photos made by Tish, then in her early 20s, to recapture the lives of youths in Newcastle, particularly in the tough, working class Elswick district. The Murtha family—Tish was one of ten children—lived there, so it was a natural focus for her work. Noteworthy in the photos is their concentration on the fun that the kids were having, jumping out of windows in abandoned buildings onto old mattresses, playing cards and sports on abandoned streets: finding joy in the simplest of things. Tish clearly loved unguarded expressions on faces, using them to express the quiet grace and charm that young people so often possess. It makes for a sharp contrast with her images of older boys—often punks—and adults, who show their anger and fear to her compassionate eye. 

Tish studied photography with David Hurn, a legendary Magnum social documentarian and teacher, who still recalled her precocity and extraordinary eye decades later for Sng’s film. Inspired by Hurn, she spent the late 1970s documenting marginalised communities in Tyneside, creating two exhibitions, one on Youth Unemployment and the other on the local Juvenile Jazz Band, which stirred up so many questions about the treatment of the area’s poor undereducated kids that it was even a subject of debate in the House of Commons. With unprecedented access to the district’s children due to her being “one of them,” Tish was able to employ her photography to attempt to make proper changes in the district. Unfortunately, nothing meaningful could take place in Tyneside during that conservative era.

Sng’s film follows Tish to London, where she spent years hanging out with, and making photos of the prostitutes, junkies, and assorted desperate characters living there in the mid Eighties. Her major exhibition from that time, London By Night, documented the denizens of Soho, to critical acclaim. But by the late Eighties, Tish returned to her family in the Northeast accompanied by her baby, Ella. There, she attempted to make a go of it as a photographer with little success. Stubborn and uncompromising, Tish couldn’t find consistent work in photography, and she wasn’t the type to end up as a teacher. Though she tried to continue working in her field, the life of a documentary photographer didn’t work out for Tish. She died too young, a day before her 57th birthday, in 2013.

Tish left her greatest ally to fight for her reputation—her daughter Ella. Uncannily resembling her mother, Ella Murtha conducts the interviews that invigorate the film with accounts of Tish and Tyneside back in the Seventies. Along with the photos, which she has meticulously preserved, Ella’s contemporary discussions impart a dramatic texture to Sng’s documentary. They also give a feeling of tragedy and raw emotion to the film since it’s so clear that many held Tish in the highest regard and miss her to this day. 

Thanks to Ella, some of Tish’s finest photographs have been published in three books and she has been included in recent exhibitions in England, including one presented by Grayson Perry. Her work is now in the collections of the Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. And she is the subject of this entirely worthy film by Paul Sng, which captures the brilliance of Tish as a photographer and the tragedy of someone with an even greater promise that remained unfulfilled.



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