'Back to Black' Honours Amy Winehouse's Persona but Not Her Artistry

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Starring Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Lesley Manville, Eddie Marsan, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan

Photo: David Giesbrech / Focus Features

BY Isabella SoaresPublished May 14, 2024


The surge of biopics in the past two decades has allowed audiences to pull down the curtain between themselves and an artist that they're passionate about or don't know enough of. These films are often palatable, because they tell a person's story from start to finish in a narrative form that will keep viewers entranced for an hour or two.

In Back to Black's case, those who don't know about British icon Amy Winehouse's discography or her harrowing journey with substance abuse and heartbreak will be carried along by a well-structured plot and a compelling character. Unfortunately, though, the film doesn't match the creativity and prowess that its subject exuded in her short-lived career.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, the film follows Amy (Marisa Abela), an edgy Jewish girl whose tattoos and fearless attitude are only a mask for a jazz enthusiast in pursuit of becoming the next Lauryn Hill. Her confidence and unique voice score her a record deal, but it's only when she begins a whirlwind romance with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell) that she finds the source material for her award-winning sophomore album. A toxic relationship that became fuel for memorable songs, like the movie's title track, leads the singer to also begin a complicated journey with addiction, which ultimately results in tragedy at a young age.

This biopic might be flawed, but its lead cast is nothing but. Abela's voice takes centre stage throughout the entire film, and although this decision might make a few flinch, it works well with the sensitive tone of the storyline. Lip-synching to Amy's "Valerie" or "Rehab" could even pass by unnoticed (after all, they're upbeat tunes), but choosing to have the actress perform "Back to Black" through raw vocals and teary eyes hits different. For someone who has never inspected the drenching lyrics behind this track — especially the phrase "We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times" — it felt like a gut-punch to listen to it in Abela's version.

O'Connell is a dark presence as the charming, bad boy who sweeps tough Amy off her feet at first sight. The actor fully embodies the wittiness and destructiveness of Blake effortlessly, and the script really allows the audience to fall for him despite the red flags. When he mouths the words to the Shangri-Las "Leader of the Pack" in their first encounter at a pub, it's like magic happens and no one can blame Amy for connecting with him. Despite the limited time on screen, Lesley Manville's portrayal of Amy's grandmother doesn't go unnoticed. The two actresses' bonding moments, including the scene that marks Amy's transition into wearing the beehive hairstyle, are one of the film's best hand-picked qualities.

Yet, amid a talented cast, an impeccable soundtrack and a plot that is easy to follow, the project's main issue is its heavy focus on Amy's personal life and how it inspired her songs rather than showing to viewers that she was much more than the problems she endured. Although her battle with addiction, her troublesome love life and the media's criticism over her form part of the story, the singer's dedication in the studio, her bond with her band and her unique delivery amid a pop-infused music scene are left on the sidelines.

Although the flow of events that unfold onscreen seems cohesive, Taylor-Johnson's depiction of the British artist's real journey is often chronologically inaccurate. A biopic must condense a person's life into a limited time frame, but can lose its power when certain moments are rearranged and repurposed (especially when it comes to her road to sobriety). In terms of retelling the singer's life, the Oscar-winning documentary Amy by Asif Kapadia has the upper hand in comparison to this project.

Overall, Back to Black misses the mark in trying to balance its heroine's hardships and her hustle as a musician. The beginning of the film is truly the only moment that viewers will witness Amy with pen and paper in hand, whereas the final product fails to show the full picture of her artistry. However, its leads and the music placements enhance the biopic and will allow audiences relate to Amy and remember her — even if it's for her life, rather than her career.

(Focus Features)

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