'Back to Black': You'll Die a Hundred Times

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse recording the title track in 'Back to Black'

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse recording the title track in 'Back to Black'

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It’s hard to gauge how bad a film people thought Back to Black was when it was released in Britain last month. The slightly dreaded biopic about the tragically short career of homegrown music sensation Amy Winehouse held at number one at the UK box office for two weeks, only dropping to number two upon the insistence of sexy tennis drama Challengers and for all the intense reactions to promotional clips and fears that it would be a damaging and inappropriate disaster, not much fuss has been kicked up domestically. 

Reviews have been mixed; some columnists have stressed polarized takes, but audiences have turned up and taken the handsome sentimentality at face value like any other music biopic of a beloved star. This may be the true insidiousness of Back to Black, a terrible film that offers nothing inventive on the tired music biopic formula and inadvertently reveals how harmful a movie like this is, even without it being an overt car crash.

Teenage Amy Winehouse (Industry’s Marisa Abela) comes from an average London Jewish family on the verge of stardom for her incredible contralto voice and sparky, deeply-felt songwriting. Her dad Mitch (Eddie Marsen) is a taxi driver who’s fated to be entirely out of his depth in the music industry; her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville) used to date British jazz musician Ronnie Scott and delights Amy with her many showbiz tales.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Lesley Manville as Nan gooing over pictures of Nan's youth in 'Back to Black'

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Lesley Manville as Nan in 'Back to Black'

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Amy soon graduates from pub gigs to executive meetings, indulging in booze, drugs, and messy relationships with an increasing amount of media attention – meanwhile, her exploding career is redefining the UK female artist landscape. It becomes clear fairly soon that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh’s dramatization of these events will be thunderingly conventional – shot with a flat, realistic style and only diverting from blunt dialogue to focus on overwrought dramatic moments in Winehouse’s struggle to find sustainable happiness and intimacy as a famous person. At a punishing two hours, Back to Black rarely, if ever, stops being boring, flattening just what makes Amy’s story so worthy in the process.

Some fans can be overly cagey about protecting a famous artist’s image and legacy to the point where they revise their actual history and reject any artistic interpretation of their life; indeed, many of the loudest Winehouse supporters sounding off in lead actress Abela’s social media about her exploiting Winehouse’s sensitive story, implying that they know what’s best for a celebrity they don’t personally know and who is no longer able to contradict them.

Yet, it’s hard to think of a musician more mistreated in her lifetime than Amy Winehouse, whose working-class background, substance abuse issues, eating disorder, and very public relationship became prey to the utter hellscape that was 2000s British culture, thanks to a tabloid-driven press that considered everything about the vulnerable singer fair game. The media found all of the above details as justification to humiliate and harass a singer who was failed not just by the general public, but also by specific figures who had a duty of care for the vulnerable star: her dad Mitch, her codependent partner Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) and the music industry catapulting her to stardom.

That is where the choices made by Taylor-Johnson become something worse than just tedious. So closely does the film focus on her perspective, on how the outside world affects her immediate sense, that there’s no sense of the intrusive surrounding world that took a lot of Amy’s agency away from her. Sometimes, this approach has its merits; the tipsy pub scenes that Amy shares with Blake when she first meets him have a stripped-down aesthetic that draws us closer to Abela and O’Connell’s well-matched chemistry. However, isolated moments like this courtship or her grief over losing Cynthia are brief upticks in a condensed story that is uninterested in the dynamics complicating Amy’s life.

Taylor-Johnson has said she didn’t want her film to express judgments over Mitch or Blake, but her attempts to curb finger-pointing mean that Back to Black suggests that no one was really responsible for Amy’s tragedy, and therefore no one apart from herself was to blame. Yes, we keep seeing gaggles of paparazzi flashing camera bulbs in her face, but what good are these images without understanding who the photos are being gladly sold to and consumed by?

Amy died from alcohol poisoning, complicated by her bulimia, in 2011. The media landscape that profited from her invasive mistreatment may have changed appearance in the intervening years, but none of the issues contributing to Winehouse’s exploitation have genuinely gone away. There still exists an incentive to mock and belittle a young, female celebrity’s class, health problems, and private life on a national scale, and by making a film that shies away from the systemic factors that caused (and could still cause today) her mistreatment.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil sit in the middle of the street in 'Back to Black'

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil sit in the middle of the street in 'Back to Black'

Focus Features

In one scene, when Amy is being interviewed on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, she stresses just how personal her songs are and how life-saving she finds expressing herself with them. None of this catharsis is reflected in the film; in its unwillingness to overstep the sensitive complexities of Amy’s life, Back to Black is impersonal and miscalculated.

Back to Black opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, May 17, 2024. The film will eventually move to Peacock when it transfers to streaming later this summer.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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