Amy Winehouse movie Back to Black fails to hit the right note

Back to Black arrived in UK cinemas last month after being pre-judged by Amy Winehouse fans as a needless biopic at best and exploitative at worst.

There's an irony in just how intensely scrutinised the new movie was, down to paparazzi sneaking onto set, given that Amy herself was subjected to the worst of tabloid culture during her tragically short life.

At least now with Back to Black being released, the movie can be judged on its own merits as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, while some of the criticism isn't justified, the movie isn't good enough to totally negate the fears of fans that it's all rather pointless.

Despite the efforts of Marisa Abela in a challenging role, it's hard to know exactly who Back to Black ends up being for. If anything, it might be a better fit for people who don't know who Amy Winehouse is or what she went through.

marisa abela, back to black

Context is key when it comes to Back to Black. As has already happened with the first official clip, it'll be a movie that will be picked apart whenever scenes arrive online. And without knowing the approach to the movie, there are multiple scenes that could be unjustly criticised when taken in isolation.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and producer Alison Owen were keen to put the focus on Amy and her music. "This is a love story, it is also a love letter to her, and it is told in her voice, her words and her perspective. She sees only good because love is blind," Taylor-Johnson notes in her director's statement.

It leaves the movie feeling more like a romance than a biopic, right down to a moment where Amy runs back into Blake Fielder-Civil's arms. The question is then whether Amy's relationship with Blake should have been told this way, largely robbed of any nuance and focused solely on the fact that she did love Blake.

This extends to Amy's relationship in the movie with her father Mitch, similarly told from the same perspective that she loved her father. But in real life, any personal relationship – let alone Amy's with both of these men – is complex.

jack o'connell, marisa abela, back to black

In a fictional romance movie, it would work as we have the ability to handle the cognitive dissonance of knowing it's not really like this. But Back to Black is telling the story of a real-life person and one who we know more about than possibly any other modern celebrity.

As an approach to telling Amy's story, it's admirable to not focus on tragedy, but it just doesn't work here. This is especially the case as the movie has to include some of that tragedy, from Amy's struggles with addiction to the toxic relationship with Blake.

It's a tonal mismatch though, so it ends up feeling sanitised. What we get instead are multiple tattoo scenes to mark the latest notable event in Amy's life, whether it's breaking up with Blake or the death of her grandmother Cynthia. It's a surface-level approach to a biopic, meaning Back to Black could have been better served just focusing on the music.

The storytelling and structural issues are no fault of the cast though, especially Marisa Abela as Amy. She was never going to match her vocals, but Abela's impressive singing throughout the movie is one aspect that feels genuinely real and soulful in a way that just dubbing her wouldn't.

marisa abela, back to black

Abela has also perfected Amy's mannerisms, which makes the musical sequences – such as her live-streamed Grammys performance – the standout moments of the movie. She might not be an exact likeness of Amy, but such is the strength of her turn that you forget.

There are other good performances among the supporting cast. Jack O'Connell is charismatic and charming as Blake, even if opinions on the movie's perspective of Blake might vary, while Lesley Manville anchors the emotional core of the movie as Cynthia.

As with Abela though, you're left wishing that the cast had more to get stuck into. They're restricted by the focus of the movie, especially Eddie Marsan as Mitch. By just playing him as a supportive father, he ends up with some of the most on-the-nose moments, such as a distasteful scene where he tells Amy: "You don't need to get any thinner."

For some people watching Back to Black, this won't even raise an eyebrow. But for those who know about Amy's life, whether from the tabloids or Asif Kapadia's terrific Amy, it's indicative of why this approach to telling Amy's story just doesn't quite sit right.

marisa abela, eddie marsan, back to black

Amy's family weren't involved in the making of Back to Black although some of the cast, such as Eddie Marsan, did talk to their real-life counterparts. It means it's the movie that the creatives, including Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Matt Greenhalgh, wanted to make.

Whether it ends up being a movie you want to see is another matter entirely. It's ultimately a subjective view on one of the most-scrutinised celebrities of the modern era that attempts to shift the focus onto her musical legacy, rather than her tragedy.

For some, that might work and it'll be seen as a celebration of Amy Winehouse. But for others, Back to Black won't do anywhere near enough to change their minds.

2 stars
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Back to Black is out now in UK and US cinemas, and it will be released digitally in the UK on May 27.

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