Back to Black (2024)

Back to Black Review

Back to Black

The data is softened and rearranged for an Amy Winehouse biopic that puts her perspective aside.

Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of “Back to Black,” has said in interviews that the movie tells Amy Winehouse’s story through her own eyes. That might be a critique of “Amy,” the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary by Asif Kapadia about the singer. It spliced together archival interviews many of them damning with family and friends and with Winehouse herself, arguing that everyone was to blame for her death at 27 in 2011 from alcohol poisoning.

Either way, it sounds as if Taylor-Johnson believes something happened to Winehouse after she died. So “Back to Black” tries to tell it like she would have.

But yikes. If so, it failed miserably. There are pockets of light in “Back to Black.” One is Marisa Abela’s performance as Winehouse: It’s deeply felt and committed; maybe too much so at times. A few sequences are effective, like her marathon pub meet-cute with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), the man whose famously toxic relationship with Winehouse powered the album for which this movie is named. (“Unfortunately there are very few scenes in which we see songs coming together usually the best part of a musician biopic,” my notes read.)

“Back to Black” begins with Winehouse saying she just wants people to listen to her music and forget their troubles for a while, really know who she was. Then it follows her through early gigs in Camden pubs, through friendships and fights with boyfriends. Everything changes when she meets Fielder-Civil and not for better reasons. An always heavy drinker, she becomes addicted to all sorts of substances over time; he is an addict himself, so on goes an addiction cycle.

She writes angry songs that become “Back to Black” when he goes back to his girlfriend. He returns, things worsen.

But the facts of Winehouse’s life and struggles are there, and the movie written by Matt Greenhalgh at times chooses to rewrite them without asking her permission. Fielder-Civil has said he introduced Winehouse to heroin; in “Back to Black,” she starts shooting up alone.

In the meet-cute, he puts on “Leader of the Pack,” by the Shangri-Las, whom she says she’s never heard of. Winehouse did credit the Shangri-Las as an influence on “Back to Black.” But interview after interview in “Amy” finds musicians and producers marveling at the breadth and depth of her musical knowledge. Ahmir K. Thompson, also known as Questlove, has said that Winehouse schooled him on jazz like nobody ever had before or since; hearing her talk about it was a near-religious experience for him. It’s not just hard to believe this scene happened; it feels almost disrespectful to Winehouse’s brilliance, as if she needed Fielder-Civil to educate her.

Then we have the thing about Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse (played by Eddie Marsan), whom she loved. “Back to Black” portrays him as a loving but often misguided man who only wanted his daughter to be safe. The harshest line about him in Winehouse’s lyrics comes up in her most famous song, “Rehab,” where she sings “my daddy thinks I’m fine” as a reason not to go a line that is real. In the movie, Mitch does tell her she doesn’t need rehab. We don’t see her perform the song until after she has gone to rehab, on the night of her Grammy wins, so the line just provides a rueful laugh for him.

But reality suggests questionable action on his part, too such as showing up in St. Lucia, where his daughter was getting better, with a camera crew to film a Channel 4 documentary called “My Daughter Amy.” This isn’t shown in “Back to Black,” even though it’s part of Winehouse’s story.

Artistic license, the mushing and rearranging of facts, is common in biopics for better or worse. It’s often necessary; steamrolling through someone’s life and trying to fit it into two hours is no small feat. That a movie messes with history a little bit doesn’t automatically make it bad.

But in “Back to Black” the omissions are so strange they feel like something is being avoided or ignored. I can only speculate what that might be; but my speculation is strong. Mitch Winehouse controls his daughter’s estate (and also hated “Amy,” telling its makers: “You should be ashamed of yourselves”). He had previously threatened to block a biopic of his daughter; instead he signed an agreement in 2018 for an authorized biopic with one of the producers of “Back to Black.”

With this context around the movie’s cavalier approach to some facts about the two most important men in Winehouse’s life, things start to come into focus. “Back to Black” is far from the first biopic to sand down real people for the Hollywood treatment. But this movie says it wants to put Amy back at her own center so it feels even grosser.

There are other things that feel weird in the movie that I can’t possibly know if they’re true like Winehouse’s baby obsession and the implication that she self-destructed because she and Fielder-Civil couldn’t conceive. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t.

What did happen: A vibrant, dynamic, abundantly talented woman whose life often didn’t feel like her own ended up at the center of a movie where her life, once again, is not her own where the facts are massaged for the benefit of men who arguably did much of the same at her expense when she was alive. Winehouse may yet get a biopic she deserves. But I wonder if it’s even necessary; when she was alive, she did it all on her own, just fine. And we still have “Back to Black.”

Watch Back to Black For Free On Gomovies.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top