‘Back to Black’ Review: You Know This Amy Winehouse Biopic Is No Good

'Back to Black' has nothing new or interesting to say about Amy Winehouse or her music. It won't impress current fans, and it certainly won't win over any new ones.

Marisa Abela in Back to Black. Focus Features

More visualized Wikipedia article than movie, Back to Black covers a wide swath of Amy Winehouse’s life and career without any real depth. Though the film purports to be about the making of the hit album of the same name, it lacks any of the emotional or artistic specificity that made Winehouse such a success. Rather, it has next to no point of view about the singer, her toxic relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, or her myriad addiction issues. It’s a movie about one of this century’s most outspoken and spoken-about artists, yet it has nothing to say.

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BACK TO BLACK (1/4 stars)
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Matt Greenhalgh
Starring: Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville
Running time: 105 mins.

Despite being named for Winehouse’s second album, Back to Black spends nearly an hour on her first. The biopic starts before Amy (Marisa Abela) even has a recording contract, when she merely sings at family parties with her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan), much to the delight of her grandmother and “style icon” Cynthia (Lesley Manville). She’s already recorded a demo, apparently, and it isn’t long in the plot for her to be offered a contract and kick off her musical career. Like in almost every musician biopic, there are a handful of eye roll-worthy moments showing Amy come up with her iconic lyrics in real time (e.g., she riffs a few lines of “What Is It About Men” after her mom judges her promiscuity, then comes up with “I Heard Love Is Blind” in the tub after a one night stand with an anonymous guy who vaguely resembles her ex).

Her debut album Frank comes and goes with some fanfare in the UK, but not enough to break overseas, making the record company want to go back to the drawing board—and the recording studio. This sends Amy into a heated argument with her father, her manager, and execs about her stage presence and music and lyrics. She declares that she needs to “live [her] songs” and heads to the nearest London bar, where she promptly meets the skeevy but charming Blake (Jack O’Connell). Though he has a girlfriend, they kick off a whirlwind romance. Simultaneously, Cynthia is diagnosed with lung cancer, and Amy’s descent into alcoholism and codependency is all but guaranteed. After she goes too far during a night out, Blake sets some boundaries and says he’s getting back with his ex, setting the stage for Amy’s next album. As the Amy Winehouse mythology goes, she wrote Back to Black during her short break from Blake, distilling all of her love, jealousy, and dangerous habits into an album that would strike a chord in people across the world.

Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell in Back to Black. Dean Rogers/Focus Features

It’s exceptionally odd, then, that Back to Black spends so little time on her time recording the titular album. Via mildly tortured montage, Amy travels to New York, drinks and smokes miserably by her lonesome, records a portion of the song “Back to Black,” goes back to London for her nan’s funeral, and finishes her recording by whispering, “He’s killed me.” Then, she’s back in London, hounded by paparazzi, seemingly trying crack cocaine on a whim, and we’re told that her album is at the top of the charts. What a timeline.

This is when the movie enters the kind of “greatest hits” storytelling that so many musical biopics fall victim to. We get to see Amy recording her beloved cover of “Valerie” in the BBC live lounge, and her rendition prompts Blake to get back together with her. There are vague recreations of some of her most famous performances, including a bizarrely shot take on her unfortunate set at 2008’s Glastonbury Festival. Back to Black even shows Amy’s big night at the Grammys, down to her reaction to being announced the winner of Record of the Year by one of her heroes, Tony Bennett. They’re all moments that people have seen before—it’s not innovative or interesting filmmaking.

This is especially true if you’ve already seen the Oscar-winning documentary Amy, which uses almost all of the same beats to much better effect. Back to Black invites comparison to this predecessor almost constantly with how much it overlaps, and it’s inferior in every way. One major difference, though, is in how the film portrays Amy’s addiction and mental health issues. While the documentary shares the artist’s struggles in great detail, this movie presents a much more sanitized version. Most of the discussion around her personal problems is limited to other characters reacting to them: a flatmate telling Amy that maybe she should just stop her bulimic purging, Mitch horrified at finding a crack pipe in a teacup, even Blake telling her that she’s doing too much. The latter example becomes a strange pattern throughout Back to Black, where Blake frequently maintains a moral high ground over his girlfriend (and later, his wife), harshly judging her drunken violence and drug use despite doing the same things himself. In reality, the two shared a codependent, often abusive partnership spurred by their substance use, but the film makes a habit of making it seem like Amy’s fault. It’s distasteful at best, offensive at worst, and not a compelling depiction of addiction in the slightest.

Aside from the middling filmmaking and bland storytelling, plenty will inevitably be said about how much or how little Abela resembles Winehouse, regardless of the quality of her performance. Her work is generally fine, and her voice evokes the singer well enough for the most part. No one is going to sound like Amy Winehouse, and it’s better for the movie and the performance that Abela sings most of the songs rather than pretend to croon out the original versions. It is unfortunate, however, that the film’s preferred mode of performance is to have Abela lip sync to her own recordings of the tracks. While the actress succeeds at doing things live, her lip syncing completely shatters the Amy illusion—her face contorts, her lip snarls, and she turns into a caricature of the singer. The painfully obvious artifice mars much of Abela’s solid work in the rest of the movie, and it makes just about every musical number fall flat.

Back to Black is a musical biopic that has nothing new to offer about its subject, nor any interesting way of reimagining her music. Love or hate Elvis, at least it had a vision; even the paint-by-numbers Bohemian Rhapsody had some life in it. But Back to Black is cold and empty, the opposite of all things Amy Winehouse.

‘Back to Black’ Review: You Know This Amy Winehouse Biopic Is No Good