Review: ‘Back to Black’ (2024), starring Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville

May 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Marisa Abela in “Back to Black” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Back to Black” (2024)

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s, mostly in England, the Amy Winehouse biopic drama “Back to Black” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: British singer Amy Winehouse becomes a Grammy-winning international superstar with her 2006 second album “Back to Black,” but her life is plagued by insecurities, drug addiction and a toxic relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who would become her husband in a doomed marriage.

Culture Audience: “Back to Black” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Amy Winehouse, but the movie is mostly a superficial and glossed-over portrayal of her life.

Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell in “Back to Black” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

The best things about the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black” are Winehouse’s original songs, and the cast members put in very good efforts in their performances. But this disappointing drama does almost everything else wrong. It’s a movie that is so intent on glossing over harsh realities of Winehouse’s life, the results are very phony-looking recreations where the overall narrative of the movie can’t be trusted.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Matt Greenhalgh, “Back to Black” takes place in the 2000s, the decade when London-based Winehouse rose to fame as a gritty and sassy singer heavily influenced by American R&B and 1960s pop music. She also wrote very confessional songs about her life. Winehouse, who struggled with various addictions, died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, after having a period of sobriety. She was 27.

Marisa Abela has the role of Winehouse in “Back to Black” and does her own singing in the movie. Winehouse had a unique contralto that would be difficult for anyone to duplicate. Abela’s Winehouse impersonation is passable, but Abela’s singing is noticeably inferior to Winehouse’s real voice talent. (For the purposes of this review, the real Amy Winehouse is referred to as Winehouse, while the character of Amy Winehouse in “Back to Black” is referred to as Amy.)

“Back to Black” is a “checklist” celebrity biopic (with a lot of corny dialogue) that follows the usual formula of a celebrity who rises to fame and fortune and then comes crashing down because of various issues, usually having to do with addiction, money, egos, love life problems, or a combination of all of them. Movies like this usually end with some type of “redemption” or “triumph” arc. And if the celebrity is dead, the death and aftermath of the death are usually tacked on as an epilogue.

The “Back to Black” movie follows Amy’s transformation from a guitar-playing pop singer (whose 2003 debut album “Frank” was a big hit in the United Kingdom, but flopped everywhere else except Europe, Australia and Brazil) to ditching her guitar as part of her stage act (at the urging of her management) to become a sultrier R&B-influenced singer known for her 1960s-styled beehive hairstyle. The movie makes it look like Amy’s beloved grandmother Cynthia (played by Lesley Manville), the mother of Amy’s father, was largely responsible for Amy’s image makeover into a 1960s-inspired “bad girl” diva after Amy showed an interest in 1960s music.

Amy is encouraged and enabled by her taxi driver father Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan), who plays an increasingly influential role in her career. Amy meets Blake Fielder-Civil (played by Jack O’Connell) at a pub, and they have a volatile on-again, off-again relationship that leads to them eloping in 2007. Blake doesn’t seem to have a steady job (he describes himself as a video assistant when he first meets Amy), but he is a full-time drug addict, with Amy also indulging in the same addictions, including alcohol, cocaine and heroin. The movie’s depictions of Amy’s self-admitted eating disorders, self-harm and rehab stints are mostly superficial and fleeting.

The well-documented physical abuse in Amy and Blake’s relationship is only hinted at in the “Back to Black” movie, in a scene where Amy is seen running away in the street with bruises and cuts on her face and body. Amy is shown with some friends in the beginning of her career, but those friends eventually fade away in the movie and are replaced by Blake and people who work for Amy. Mark Ronson—one of the main producers of her breakthrough 2006 second (and last) studio album “Back to Black”—is mentioned but never seen in the movie. The same goes for Simon Fuller, the owner of 19 Management, the company that is most famous for managing the Spice Girls and Amy Winehouse.

The “Back to Black” movie sidelines Amy’s songwriting talent, her work in recording studios and her concert tours, in order to make the majority of the story about the dysfunctional relationship between Amy and Blake. The movie makes it look like Amy was much more in love with Blake than he was with her. And that is probably true. In real life, “Back to Black” was written during a period of time when Winehouse and Fielder-Civil had broken up, before they got married. Their marriage lasted only two years.

The movie only shows the stories behind only a few of her songs. The inspiration for “Rehab,” her biggest hit, is in a scene where Amy’s manager Nick Shymansky (played by Sam Buchanan) and other people in her entourage have an intervention to urge her to go to rehab, but Amy says “no,” and Mitch backs her up and says she’s just fine. In real life, Shymansky has given interviews saying that Mitch originally agreed to convince Amy to go to rehab during this intervention, but Mitch went back on his word and ended up by siding with Amy. By all accounts, Amy Winehouse in real life was not “just fine” when she recorded the “Back to Black” album but she was actually deep in the throes of addiction, which the movie constantly glosses over by downplaying how serious her addictions were.

The “Back to Black” movie dishonestly makes it look like paparazzi had more to do with Amy’s downfall during the height of her fame, instead of all the enablers (including her father Mitch) who pushed her to go on tour when she didn’t want to tour and she should have been getting necessary and proper medical care for her health issues. Amy’s mother Janis (played by Juliet Cowan), who separated from Mitch when Amy was 9, is depicted in the movie as mostly a passive bystander. Amy’s older brother Alex (played by Izaak Cainer), who was four years older that she was, is barely in the movie.

The movie dutifully recreates one of the high points in Amy’s career: the 2008 Grammy Awards, when Amy performed “Rehab” from London and then won the Grammy for Record of the Year for “Rehab,” with her parents in the audience cheering her on. She won a total of five Grammys at the ceremony, including Song of the Year (also for “Rehab”); Best Pop Vocal Album (for “Back to Black”); Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for “Rehab”); and Best New Artist. She became the first British female artist to win all of these Grammy Awards in the same ceremony.

Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh previously worked together on the John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” (about Lennon’s troubled teenage years), a drama released in 2009 in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia, and in 2010 everywhere else. Greenhalgh also wrote the screenplay for the 2007 biopic “Control,” a drama about Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British rock band Joy Division. Just like the “Back to Black” movie, “Nowhere Boy” and “Control” also had good performances in a movie with a very flawed screenplay. Although “Back to Black” certainly does an admirable job with costume design, production design and hairstyling, viewers are better off watching the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary “Amy” for a more insightful and more accurate story of Winehouse’s life.

Focus Features will release “Back to Black” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024, with a sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on May 15, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in April 2024. “Back to Black” will be released on digital and VOD on June 4, 2024.

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