‘Back to Black’ is a Dismal, Disastrous Disservice to Amy Winehouse (Review)

by | May 15, 2024


Amy Winehouse’s tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil and her tragically short life in music are chronicled in this new biopic.

More often than not, music biopics have been a surefire way for studios to make easy money from the fanbase of the film’s subject, with a bigger cashflow incoming if the movie ends up a major awards player or a genuinely great movie (eg. Elvis, Ray, Walk The Line). Unfortunately, others ride the grift of the genre with terrible writing and misguided portrayals of their subject’s complexities, and Back to Black is sadly on the latter end of that spectrum with its dismal and insulting depiction of Amy Winehouse’s meteoric rise and tragic fall in the music industry. 

Back to Black begins in 2002, as Amy Winehouse (Marisa Abela) gets by as an up-and-coming nightclub performer in London while harboring a close relationship with her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville) and living in the home of her mother Janis (Juliet Cowan) following a separation from father Mitch (Eddie Marsan). Her talent as a singer attracts the attention of manager Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), who signs her to his equally up-and-coming record label and gives Amy the outlet to record her first album Frank. It becomes a smash hit in the United Kingdom but is not released elsewhere, as demanded by Nick’s business associates that also request changes to Amy’s act.

Winehouse vehemently refuses and barges out of their meeting to go immediately to the nearest pub and use alcohol to help her cope with her newfound stresses, but comes to meet the mysterious heartthrob Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell). After trading a bit of boozy British banter, the two fall head over heels for each other until Blake suddenly breaks it off with Amy months later after a particularly horrible night of drinking. From there, Amy goes into recording her smash album Back to Black which catapults her toward superstardom. 

What follows is clear for those who lived during Amy Winehouse’s creative peak in the early aughts, but for audiences unaware of the answer, Back to Black feels like an attempt to absolve the Winehouse family of their involvement in their daughter’s demise, shown by the script’s method of framing the late singer as a super extroverted unsung icon of feminism who drinks hard like ‘just one of the guys’. That’s well-meaning in theory, but on paper and screen, this by-the-numbers biopic bungles the effort at every turn by presenting Amy Winehouse and her feminist drive as naturally out of control, which is on its own a dangerous proclamation.

While Asif Kapadia’s incredible film Amy gets testimony from the talent’s best friends, managers, and her parents as well as Blake himself who all admit she was a timid old soul, the iconic singer struts down the streets of London in Back to Black to R&B from the late 90s, confronts authority with rebelliousness ferocity, and gets into nightly fights outside of bars with barely an attempt at humanizing her, such as when a relative passively tells her to stop drinking alcohol in a moment of lazy exposition. Meanwhile, what benders she does go on by her lonesome, in addition to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it touch on her bulimia not only look more slick and stylish than they should given the dark, depressing period Winehouse was in at this point in her life, but they also don’t seem to add any more emotional weight to this movie other than the statement of, “Hey! This sad thing happened,” like a Wikipedia article.

In fact, despite Blake being on record of saying Amy’s first time doing crack cocaine was when they did it together after her marriage, Back to Black takes the liberty of putting the blame on the mentally fragile singer herself by showing her doing it on her own clear as day, without ever acknowledging Blake was an accomplice in her drug addiction. But her father isn’t at fault for her mental breakdown either! When the record company requests that Amy go to a drug rehabilitation center, Mitch doesn’t deny it from her as it was cited in the 2015 documentary. Rather, he follows her determined daughter’s lead, only to turn coat and go along with the executives when they say she needs to adjust her attire and stop playing the guitar on-stage.

All this to say, there are a select few elements to admire within Back to Black. Marisa Abela delivers as Amy Winehouse through a stellar breakthrough performance where she goes the extra mile to do all her own singing in a valiant endeavor that can be seen through her pained facial expressions during Amy’s performances both on stage and in the recording booth. Abela doesn’t match the wallflower’s vocals entirely, but gets close enough to pay more respect to Winehouse’s unique vocal talent than the script ever does. 

Even director Sam Taylor-Johnson tries her best to inject the material she’s given with some delicacy, such as framing Amy wide when she sits alone in her bedroom writing a song as she’s playing it, only for her voice to break with an inner sadness as soon as the camera finishes pushing into a closeup on her face. Taylor-Johnson also does a solid job of creating intimacy, shown through instances where Amy and Blake play pool in a pub and traverse the London zoo together, while their foray into drugs is sporadically conveyed through moody darkness that only leaves their outlines visible when the two lovers drunkenly stumble down an alley. 

Unfortunately, her efforts and those from Abela and O’Connell are wasted in what’s otherwise a bafflingly bland biopic that neither gives its subject the respect and humanity she needed when she was alive, nor complement the truths about Amy that are already documented on film. Those longing for a sense of who Amy Winehouse really was should check out the fantastic A24 documentary about her, or give her albums a spin on their record player. Both options are better than seeing the cinematic CliffsNotes that is Back to Black.


RATING: ★1/2

(out of five stars)