Marisa Abela (left) and Jack O’Connell (right) star in “Back to Black” (Photo Credit: Dean Rogers/Focus Features).

(“Back to Black” trailer courtesy of Focus Features)

People often tell artists, like writers, to write what they know.

That is why the work of many artists have similar themes and styles.

It is also imperative that an artist know who they are not before they get into the entertainment business because executives will try to make them into something that they are not, and audiences often respond better to authenticity.

But most importantly, as shown in the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black,” it is also important that artists know exactly who they are, for better or worse, because if they do not conquer their demons before fame and fortune, those devils will devour them and rip their bones to shreds just when all their dreams are coming true before their very eyes.

As a result, Winehouse’s life story told in “Back in Black” presents a heartbreaking tale about an extremely talented but troubled and tortured soul who received fame when she needed help.

In an episode of the TV One music docuseries “Unsung,” David Ruffin Jr. said that instead of much-needed love, his father David Ruffin of The Temptations got fame instead.

While Winehouse definitely did not lack love and support from her family members and business associates, she desperately needed the rehabilitation for drugs and alcohol that she infamously refused to get in the classic song, “Rehab.”

That lack of self-awareness led to her early demise and put her in the same camp as other young iconic artists like Janis Joplin and Tupac Shakur who could not conquer their demons in time to save their lives and their careers.

Like Shakur and many others, Winehouse poured her soul into her lyrics.

If Winehouse had no life experiences worth writing about, she had no new songs like Shakur wrote no songs while incarcerated because being behind the cages stifled his passion and creativity.

Unfortunately for Winehouse and Shakur, their best songs came out of drama, intoxication, relationship issues and other problems.

Those issues created great works of art because it spoke to the pain that many people feel and provided catharsis for the writer.

But when very few of those works of art deal with the problems caused by the writers themselves and only point the blame at others, death and destruction is often right around the corner for the person not self-aware enough to fix their flaws.

Despite Winehouse’s imperfections, very few could deny her near-perfect talent as a musical artist.

From the outset, she let music executives know that she was no Spice Girl.

In “Back to Black,” Amy sees herself in the mold of Lauryn Hill, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn.

Her self-assuredness will remind many R&B fans of Alicia Keys’ relationship with music impresario Clive Davis of J Records who wanted to mold Keys’ image to mirror that of a young Whitney Houston.

While at Arista Records, Davis molded Houston into a girl next door that would appeal to White audiences, while at the same time ignoring her inner-city New Jersey roots and snubbing Black radio.

Keys was not going to make that mistake because it took Houston years to recover from trying too hard to crossover.

Likewise, Amy is determined to stay true to her jazz and soul roots, resisting the urge to go pop by telling everyone trying to change her, an emphatic no.

Unfortunately, when the people closest to her urge her to get help for her dependencies, she famously says no, no, no again.

And when she meets Blake, the love of her life who unfortunately has a cocaine addiction, she produces same great music.

However, the relationship produces some toxins that are difficult for her to shake.

In “Back to Black,” Amy’s dysfunctional relationship with Blake (Jack O’Connell) is like a 21st century British version of Houston’s marriage with R&B bad boy, Bobby Brown.

The love is strong.

But so is the abusive behavior, which does not necessarily mean physical abuse.

Like Houston, Amy (Marisa Abela) eventually recognizes her problems and tries to confront her demons.

But like in Houston’s case, sometimes the demons have done such destruction that professional help and determination might prove too difficult to overcome.

What results is a cautionary tale about yes-men, the danger of drugs and alcohol and how the wrong mate only complicates what is already a difficult life and career.

While many, if not most, know of the tragic rise and fall of Winehouse’s career, a music biopic like “Back to Black” hinges on the performances of the stars.

Luckily, Abela shines as Amy in a way that mimics that icon’s style and swagger, without making a caricature of the late singer.

Not surprisingly, Abela’s performance as a musical genius is not to the level of a Jamie Foxx in “Ray” or Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Nevertheless, she still does her thing in bringing some humanity and relatability to the songstress.

When Winehouse succumbed to her addiction, many on social media took to various platforms to mock her addiction and death.

Hopefully, “Back to Black” will remind those heartless folks that despite her troubles, she was a human being that had flaws like everyone else.

Her flaws were just put on front street because of fame.

And flaws often speed up the death process if not tackled properly.

The testimonial pain that she put in her music touched people lives.

And hopefully, her demise will touch many more so that they can avoid the tragic fate that took her from us.

 

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Todd A. Smith
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