Back to Black Review: Amy Winehouse Biopic Is Complicated, For Better or Worse

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Writer Matt Greenhalgh and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who previously collaborated on the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, return to the genre with Back to Black, telling the story of iconic musician Amy Winehouse. Although the film’s heart is consistently in the right place, its attempts at a complicated execution all too often misfire, leaving a somewhat bitter aftertaste despite occasional success.

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Back to Black focuses on Winehouse’s ascent from humble beginnings as a lounge singer in Britain to become one of the most acclaimed voices of her generation. With Winehouse’s tragic rise and fall happening not even a decade and a half ago, audiences likely already know much of this story, but Greenhalgh’s script doesn’t imagine that audiences are ignorant. 

Where Back to Black succeeds the most is exploring Winehouse’s struggles with addiction, from alcohol to drugs and codependence with her partner. It narrowly avoids being didactic and exploitative, focusing less on what audiences should “learn” from Winehouse’s experience and more on how they should feel. If the movie does one thing incredibly well, it is convincing viewers that Winehouse was an incredible talent we lost too soon.

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Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Back to Black is complicated

That being said, taking such a dark and pessimistic approach almost contradicts the message the starlet shared before she passed. The film is bookended by voiceover saying she wants to be remembered for her music providing escapism, and Back to Black is anything but escapist. In another scene, Abela as Winehouse talks about writing songs to help her navigate things she can’t get over. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t provide the catharsis implied by the latter, nor the escapism of the former; instead, it makes you pity Winehouse — something that you wouldn’t expect the starlet to want.

Marisa Abela’s performance in the lead role also verges on disrespectful at times. You do have to give Abela a tremendous amount of credit for singing the vocal tracks rather than lip-syncing, especially since Winehouse is a truly once-in-a-lifetime talent. However, some of the mannerisms are borderline comical. Her amount of head wobbling, finger-on-ear, open-mouthed fake vibrato is exaggerated and distracting, drawing you out of the legitimately solid vocal work she is doing.

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(L to R) Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O’Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Fortunately, Abela fares much better in the more dialogue-driven emotional scenes. As exaggerated as Abela’s mannerisms are when she is acting as Winehouse, the singer, they are surprisingly grounded when she is playing Winehouse, the addict. Where many performers would take the louder, more violent outbursts and make something flashy out of them, Abela infuses the character with a deep pang of sadness that resonates immensely.  

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Abela is surrounded by a pretty strong supporting cast led by Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, and Lesley Manville. O’Connell is the biggest standout with a nuanced turn, taking a character that’s written in an almost archetypal way and infusing it with genuine emotion and complexity. Marsan plays very against type, disarming the audience and subverting expectations with the character he plays. Manville has such a warm presence here that it’s utterly infectious. It’s a solid, unfussy ensemble to round out a movie that is so singularly focused on its central presence.

In the director’s chair, Taylor-Johnson does some things very well and falters on others. The recreation of Winehouse’s satellite Grammys performance and acceptance speech is incredibly immersive and becomes a clear highlight of the film. In other scenes, Taylor-Johnson over-relies on slow motion and blurriness to convey Winehouse’s frenzied state during her episodes.

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Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Is Back to Black Worth Watching?

All said, Back to Black is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good film about addiction, but on the other, it’s not a very good movie about Amy Winehouse. While it is refreshing to see a music biopic willing to genuinely engage with the complexities of its subject’s life, writer Matt Greenhalgh and director Sam Taylor-Johnson don’t always do so in the right way.

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Back to Black hits theaters on May 18.

7/10

7 out of 10

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Written by Sean Boelman

Articles Published: 156

Sean is a film critic, filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include music documentaries, heist movies, and experimental horror.