Back To Black review | The Amy Winehouse biopic is a misjudged tragedy

marisa abela as amy winehouse in back to black
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Marisa Abela provides the shining light in a film unable to outrun its demons. Here’s our Back To Black review.

The story of Amy Winehouse is bloody sad.

The music biopic formula being what it is, Back To Black might not be the best vehicle to get that across. Taking a highly publicised life and condensing it into a narratively straightforward package is always difficult. For Winehouse, it’s probably impossible.

Her very public struggles with fame and addiction have become the stuff of pop culture legend. Skyrocketing onto the stage with her 2003 debut album Frank, she almost instantly earned her reputation as one of the finest vocal and songwriting talents of her generation. A turbulent relationship with alcohol, drugs and her husband Blake attracted the camera flashes of the tabloid press. He went to prison. She went to rehab. She died of alcohol poisoning after a relapse, aged 27.

That’s the story Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film attempts to tell, too. Attempts, because while the structure might be largely true to life, moment to moment it consistently fails to capture the sparkle behind the headlines. The idea that Winehouse was someone who “lived life to the full” is the sort of sentiment associated with a stately shake of the head at a dinner party; it feels like it cheapens a life filled as much with pain and self-destruction as musical brilliance. But in the popular imagination, she was undeniably a force of nature. The one thing a successful biopic about her life can’t be is boring.

Unfortunately, this primary-colours portrait feels reluctant to dive into the weeds of either its protagonist or the people around her. Amy is told “you’re too fucked up”, but we’re rarely shown it. Instead, the brightly lit (and curiously empty) pubs she spends an inordinate amount of time in are used to telegraph a gradual descent into a slightly messy coffee table. Despite the 15-rating in the UK (and an R-rating in the States) Back To Black feels sanitised to a degree that robs the story of all its value.

Of course, a certain reticence on the filmmakers’ behalf is understandable. Unlike other notable music biopics in recent years, this one was made without the creative input of the Winehouse estate, and while this theoretically gave the team permission to delve where protectors of Amy’s legacy might rather they avoid, they seem instead to have tiptoed around topics which could raise the spectre of exploitation over their heads.

But then, the whole exercise feels exploitative anyway. The process of taking a dead woman’s image and building it into a feature film when overexposure almost certainly played a role in her death was never going to be anything else. The only defence would be to make something truthful, something which shows Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh understand what Amy Winehouse means in the popular imagination.

Instead, her story has been packaged into the most by-the-numbers biopic template imaginable. The script is packed with melodramatic cliches which rub especially painfully next to Winehouse’s cheekily transgressive lyrics. Even the camera feels well-behaved, content to sit quietly in a medium shot while Amy’s life is supposed to be falling apart.

back to black review
Credit: StudioCanal

Perhaps most unforgivably, though, is the framing of the whole tale as a love story between the singer and her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Jack O’Connell feels horribly miscast from the moment he enters the room, parodying a Cockney accent and Oasis haircut like a less-charming version of Peep Show’s Super-Hans. His interactions with Marisa Abela’s Amy are self-conscious and often embarrassing; not only does he never seem like he actually likes her, it’s impossible to imagine how she could ever think he does, which makes the relationship’s centrality to the whole story seem ridiculous.

Not that Fielder-Civil is even cast as the villain of the piece. Neither is Amy’s father, Mitch, played by Eddie Marsan (the two men have been publicly scrutinised for years following Winehouse’s death, alternately accused of encouraging her self-destructive tendencies and exploiting her fame and status). The impulse not to turn Back To Black into a blame-game is an honourable one, but there is a difference between refusing to attribute blame to one party and refusing to attribute it at all. Whether it’s Mitch, Blake, the paparazzi, the media, her management or even Amy herself, the story refuses to pin fault at anyone’s door. A tragic story for which we all, collectively can assume some responsibility is shown to be no one’s responsibility at all. That kind of handwashing isn’t just dramatically dissatisfying; it feels amoral.

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The film does get one very important piece of the puzzle right. Marisa Abela is fantastic. Warm, vulnerable, gobby and charming, she carries off an iconic style that’s difficult to wear without looking parodic. She sings all Winehouse’s songs herself, and, bloody hell, she can sing. The few times the camera sits and watches her performing in all her glory are far and away the best moments of the film. There might be a lot wrong with the movie, but she isn’t one of them.

But I really, truly wish Back To Black hadn’t been made. That such an obviously Icarus-like story seemed so ripe for reconstruction is exactly the reason no one should have gone anywhere near it. Thrusting an over-simplified narrative onto a woman whose life was defined by the stories we told about her feels like a betrayal. That Abela delivers a star making performance so early in her career in a vehicle so undeserving of it only compounds the misery. That a film so technically fine is about to fall victim to the kind of scrutiny it simply won’t be able to survive compounds it further. The story of Back To Black was always going to be a tragedy.

In the end, it’s just sad.

Back To Black arrives in UK cinemas 12th April 2024.

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