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Back to Black

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Back to Black” invokes a single question, one fans of Amy Winehouse are sure to recognize: What kind of f*ckery is this? The Camden-bred superstar, played by Marisa Abela, was famously “just one of the girls.” Down to earth, charming, witty, and, when she opened her mouth, a dazzling performer with an unbelievably soulful voice. Infamously, those who remember Amy will also recall a brutal struggle with addiction and leeching media frenzies that followed her to her death at age 27 from alcohol poisoning in the summer of 2011. 

“Back to Black” chronicles the years between the success of 2003's breakthrough Frank and the blowup of the film's titular album in 2006. But if you expect to learn about Amy the person or even Amy the musician, temper your expectations. Taylor-Johnson’s film, penned by Matt Greenhalgh, is concerned with Amy the addict, making “Back to Black” a dreadful, dastardly attempt at a biopic.

If there’s one assumption to be made about any musician’s biographical drama film, it’s that it will be music-centric. While “Back to Black” has plenty of performances highlighting some of Amy’s most famous songs, they are almost exclusively used for simple soundtrack and pity fodder rather than essential structure. They almost feel like flippant reminders to portray Amy as a performer rather than solely the emotional wreck they characterize her as. The film allots next to none of its runtime to the actual making of either album. We are given fractional context to her artistry, only minor bullet points, like a single guitar-in-the-bed songwriting sesh and a cheeky Mark Ronson namedrop.

"Back to Black" misunderstands Amy’s legacy. The film doesn’t permit unfamiliar audiences to be privy to her iconicity. It doesn’t showcase the ravenous support from her hometown and country, the way they rallied behind her, or the transition of her fame to the States. It neglects to acknowledge any of the reasons why Amy and her music were so beloved. Very little of her actual career is touched on in the film. Instead, it plays more like a montage of toxic romance, drug use, and impromptu tattoos. 

Many of the onstage moments serve to show issues with sobriety or the mournful longing she feels for her on-and-off boyfriend and eventual husband, Blake (Jack O’Connell). The singular clip we’re given of the making of Back to Black is a moment of her tearfully recording the titular track, declaring, “he’s killed me,” and hard cutting to a leap in time where Amy is in the deepest throes of substance abuse. Not even her addiction, the film’s misguided though central focus is given thoughtful narrative—it’s just something that happens off-screen. It’s treated with cut-to-the-chase rapidity because, as the film sees it, we know it happens anyway. 

Abela gives a valiant effort in her performance, loosely capturing Amy’s onstage mannerisms and idiosyncratic dancing. But gesture is not essence, and there’s always a distracting artifice to her depiction. Amy Winehouse's charisma and charm were almost as famous as her voice, and Abela’s hollow copy and exaggerated accent put her out of her depth in attempting to replicate them. 

If the film’s navel-gazing take on defining Amy by drug use wasn’t criminal enough, the script treats these struggles and her eventual death as matters of fate: an end bound to her from the beginning. Every reach for a beer or glass of wine is dramatized like a smug nod to what we know is coming. From the top of the film, Amy is portrayed as a philandering, snarky silver tongue, a criminal to the love lives of others and a fated victim to her own heart. Blake is treated like a casualty to the irrepressible storm of her out-of-control nature, and her father, a powerless, wishful supporter, even though simple biography dictates otherwise. Neither of these men is fully to blame, but omitting their enabling and exacerbation of Amy’s vulnerabilities is irresponsible to the dignity of history. Amy is portrayed as a naive and directionless mess, and all the while, the music is never the cornerstone of the story. It begs the question: Why was this film made? 

When we reflect on pop culture’s past with 2024 eyes, looking back on how the media and public treated Amy, we recall the exploitation with disgust. We compare it to Britney and vow to do better next time. The hopeful implication here would be that we could honor Winehouse’s story better in death than in her life, yet this expectation sets the viewer up for failure. While Taylor-Johnson directs scenes that seem to shake their head at the oppressive paps that tail Amy’s every move, her film fails to do anything different. There’s a gross level of romanticization and infantilization that hemorrhages any hint of life force from this story. The same sensationalist treatment she attempts to scoff at is integral to the story she’s chosen to tell. Taylor-Johnson’s predatory, voyeuristic eye never fails to capitalize on the strife of Amy’s addiction without providing empathy or care. It renders the music purely as a consequence of a proposed penchant for pain and poor choices, depicting its hero as pathetic. 

“Back to Black” makes a martyr of its subject, flattening Amy Winehouse's life and music to a series of binges and failure to overcome heartbreak. It viciously strips her of any agency or humanity, positing her to be nothing more than a tragedy with an iconic album. While there’s no way to separate Amy’s biography from her addiction, to conflate it with her entire existence, sidelining personhood and omitting the pillars of her legacy is an offensive approach to storytelling. 

For fans who love her, this film is a heart-wrenching watch for all the wrong reasons, and for any of the true loved ones she’s left behind, the impact feels as if it can only be devastating. “Back to Black” spotlights the same dialogue in its introduction as in its final act, Amy laments, “I want to be remembered as a singer. I want to be remembered for my voice." Yet, the film hardly remembers her for more than her darkest moments, a posthumous “too bad” that will leave many leaving the theater disturbed.

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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Film Credits

Back to Black movie poster

Back to Black (2024)

Rated R

122 minutes


Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse

Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil

Eddie Marsan as Mitch Winehouse

Lesley Manville as Cynthia Winehouse

Juliet Cowan as Janis Winehouse-Collins

Bronson Webb as Joey



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