Back to Black movie review: Sam Taylor-Johnson's Amy Winehouse biopic was so bad it made me gasp in horror

Before we even get to the deep moral and ethical problems, Back to Black is, on the most basic of levels, a poor, poor piece of filmmaking. The schtick being rolled out is that it is an impressionistic, abstract take on the life of Amy Winehouse based on her lyrics.

But while it may offer up endless GCSE symbolism-via-animals – “Amy sits in Soho Square and stares for ages at a fox, thinking… something”; “Amy, whose posthumous album will be called Lioness, stares at a lion” – it looks, feels and sounds like all the dress-up box biopics it thinks it is artistically superior to.

Sam Taylor-Johnson clearly considers herself far too much of ‘An Auteur’ to use any of the standard-issue music film tropes. Which is fine with me: I don’t want to ever see another montage cutting between increasingly bigger/more ecstatic crowds and album sales rocketing up by the hour and so on and so forth. But instead of a clever alternative, Back to Black simply doesn’t bother to establish just how quickly Amy Winehouse became as famous as she did. Or why.

She just, suddenly, has swarms of paparazzi camped outside her house and is, having split up with Blake Fielder-Civil, smoking a crack pipe. Ten minutes earlier, her record label were telling her they weren’t going to even bother releasing her debut album in the US due to its poor domestic sales and she was chastising Blake for snorting cocaine.

 (Focus Features, LLC/StudioCanal/Dean Rogers. All Rights Reserved)
(Focus Features, LLC/StudioCanal/Dean Rogers. All Rights Reserved)

So anyone coming to this film without any prior knowledge of Amy’s story should a) assume she got into hard drugs of her own accord – even though the real life Fielder-Civil is on record as saying “I got Amy into heroin” – and b) only have a short snippet of her recording Back to Black, the song, to get across what all the fuss is about.

Rehab, the lightning bolt single that of course changed everything, is not even heard until the last 20 minutes of the film. You Know I’m No Good doesn’t feature, at all. Tears Dry On Their Own plays over the credits. For someone who released so little music, this is just… absurd.

And the singing? Well yes, Marisa Abela can sing, but only in the way tens of thousands of singers stood in hotel bars around the world right this second can sing. She is not A Singer. I mean, I can do you a perfectly passable Walking After Midnight, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to buy me as Patsy Cline.

And to state the obvious: Amy Winehouse was not just once-in-a-generation voice. She was a born interpreter of song who, even before she was a star, had put in her 10,000 hours at the altar of true masters like Ray Charles, Etta James and Donnie Hathaway.

Much has been made, too, of how much weight Abela has lost for this role. I would first like to make it emphatically clear that I find the actors-starving-themselves-for-awards thing to be irresponsible-verging-on-disturbing – would Dr Oppenheimer have been any less Dr Oppenheimer without Cillian Murphy’s press tour-friendly one-almond-a-week diet? – but… no one in this film is skinny enough.

The real Amy and Blake looked washed out and ill, in the way that only people who have done months of class As for breakfast, lunch and dinner do. Here, in his topless scenes, Jack O’Connell’s Fielder-Civil looks like he’s just stepped out of Barry’s Bootcamp rather than Pete Doherty’s (pre-cheese-years) basement.

Given the Winehouse estate authorised Back to Black, it is not a surprise that Eddie Marsan’s Mitch Winehouse – who detested his portrayal in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary Amy – comes off as the World’s Greatest Dad.

Marisa Abela and Jack O'Connell in Back to Black (Courtesy of Dean Rogers)
Marisa Abela and Jack O'Connell in Back to Black (Courtesy of Dean Rogers)

But this version of Blake Fielder-Civil (who was not involved in the film)? Wow. Just wow. It is probably true that he is a man who has been over-vilified in real life but, really, there are multiple times here where you feel like you are watching Saint Blake: The Movie.

We are here led to believe that Amy Winehouse, a lifelong music obsessive, has never heard of Sixties girl group The Shangri-Las – the key musical inspiration for Back to Black – until Blake introduces her to them.

When she pleads with Blake not to break up with her, he says – actually says – “But you’re not going to stop drinking, are you Amy?” As already mentioned, Blake does not get her into hard drugs. Worse: the first time we see them doing crack together, the only one of the two of them we have previously seen doing crack is her. And when she gets clean, it’s because he implores her to follow him in getting clean.

Taylor-Johnson has spent many years eye rolling about the John Lennon fanboys and fangirls who criticised her 2009 film Nowhere Boy. The truth is, though, that it is important biopics about such beloved icons are at least relatively historically accurate.

Maybe not in 2024, but there will, in say 20 years’ time, be people whose first experience of Amy Winehouse is Back to Black. And this is a film that does not paint a nice or fair picture of her as a human, nor get across how special an artist she was. The final scene, in particular, with its completely and utterly baseless, sensationalist implications, made me physically gasp in horror.

In cinemas from Friday

122 mins, cert 15