Back to Black

Amy Winehouse was anything but formulaic, but the same can't be said about this by-the-numbers biopic about the British singer.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 11, 2024


Casting a biopic can't be easy. The awards-courting label that hangs over the genre that's earned Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer), Will Smith (King Richard), Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Renée Zellweger (Judy) and Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) lead actor and actress Oscars over the past decade alone can't make the task any less tricky, either. Then, when music bios get a spin — which is often — the weight of recognition and fandom is an especially heavy factor. Does the actor resemble the star that they're playing physically or in spirit? Can they? Will their attempt to slip into someone else's mega fame read like a triumphant ode or a faded facsimile? Will they try to inhabit rather than impersonate? Is doing the real-life person justice even possible? The questions go on.

Even with those queries in mind, Back to Black has chosen its lead well. In Industry's Marisa Abela, who has just six prior acting credits on her resume before now — Barbie is the latest; Man in a Box, her first, came when she was only 11 — the Amy Winehouse-focused film has someone who looks the part beehive or not, and convincingly lives and breathes it behind a north London accent. She sings it, too, when the picture weaves in her own vocals atop Winehouse's music. But casting isn't the only key element for a biopic. The dance that a feature is taking through a well-known figure's life needs the material and the approach to support its central performance — the lyrics and tune to match with sheer talent, in music terms. If they fall flat, so does the flick. And unlike a bad song for an exceptional singer, there's no second chances in this realm.

So echoes the big refrain of Back to Black: no matter her significant efforts, Abela as Winehouse is given as by-the-numbers a ditty to croon, and a beat to hit, as the music biopic genre has ever pumped out. It's impossible to know what the subject of the film would think of it, of course, but the movie from director Sam Taylor-Johnson (A Million Little Pieces) and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool) portrays her as someone who hated formula, which the picture itself does not. At their most routine, biographical features boil people and their achievements down to standard plot points that could be swapped into any such flick about any such folk with a sliver of fame. The names change, and the eras, but the details are virtually interchangeable. Dispiritingly, that's on full display here in a tale about supreme potential, the worldwide success to go with it, haunting demons that can't be shaken and a premature death.

As a result, everyone knows what'll happen in Back to Black even if you somehow don't know a thing about Winehouse going in. Here, she's an outwardly plucky but inwardly vulnerable teen with a killer set of pipes who has a rocky time of it in the spotlight, in love and with addiction through her twenties until she heartbreakingly joins the 27 Club. If that was the movie's one-sentence pitch to get the green light, it's also all that Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh — who worked together before on 2009's Nowhere Boy, which was about John Lennon's adolescence — have committed to. To flesh it out, they've also made the broadest strokes, drawn from the most-obvious details and spun a narrative that's one-note. In this telling, which holds itself up as a tribute, Winehouse's on-again, off-again romance with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell, Ferrari) becomes her defining trait, not her voice.

When they meet in a pub, bonding over drinks and pool, and bantering with enough woozy charm to get the entire bar drunk from proximity, Fielder-Civil introduces her to 60s girl group The Shangri-Las, one of her influences. Their first breakup is then the inspiration for the iconic album that gifts the movie its name. The end of their marriage during his incarceration, plus the news that he has started a family with someone else, are poised as developments that she can't get over. There's so little to Winehouse without him in this account — and so much that doesn't directly involve him, such as her early years and even recording Back to Black, is rushed through or relegated to a quick montage — that the movie might as well be called Amy & Blake (it's no Sid and Nancy, though, or even Pam & Tommy).

Winehouse is "no Spice Girl", the film has her stress, but she is little more than Blake's girl in its eyes — and regardless of the strength of their love throughout their tumultuous romance, that's hardly the complete Winehouse story. Back to Black gives its protagonist a strong connection with the grandmother (Lesley Manville, The Crown) that she idolises and considers a style icon, and an unwavering sense of what she wants her career to be, but neither earns enough attention to overtake the picture's Blake-centric angle. When it comes to Winehouse's father Mitch (Eddie Marsan, Franklin), the main aim seems to be contrasting with his depiction in Senna and Diego Maradona director Asif Kapadia's Academy Award-winning 2015 documentary Amy. There's no depth there, or to much in Black to Black, as it also puts too much emphasis on its subject's maternal desires and not enough on the ugliness of becoming paparazzi-hounded tabloid fodder, or of addiction. The only place that you'll find complexity: Abela's performance and Winehouse's jazz-pop sound.

It's no surprise, then, that the film is at its best when it's recreating gigs, or that they're the next most-prominent part of the movie after the Amy-Blake love story. But unlike in Bohemian Rhapsody or Elvis — or 2024's fellow music biopic Bob Marley: One Love — the concert scenes feel less designed to get audiences soaking in the sensation of watching a stunning talent, transporting them to those moments like they're there in-person, and more about adding a few easy highs to a tale told as an inescapable tragedy. Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh, the latter of which also penned the excellent Joy Division-focused Control, used Winehouse's lyrics and interviews as their guide to making the feature, but they've still filtered it through a view that sees the outcome of her life as inevitable. To that, to the well-worn bio template, to making her time with Blake its point of interest and to much more about Back to Black, there's only one response — and it's the same that Winehouse gave to going to rehab.


Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x