Back to Black review: Amy Winehouse biopic is touching if serviceable

The film premieres in cinemas on Friday, 12 April

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back To Black. (Studiocanal)

Amy Winehouse's life and legacy is being revisited on the silver screen, with director Sam Taylor-Johnson hoping her film will return agency to the late singer whose life was marred by exploitation and tragedy.

Back to Black tries to do this by charting her rise to fame from her early music to her Grammy-award winning album the film takes its title from, and exploring her personal struggles. It's a biopic that some might argue wasn't necessary, or is being released too soon after Winehouse's death from alcohol poisoning aged 27 in 2011 — but the fact of the matter is the film has been made, it is here, so how well does it tell Winehouse's story?

Read more: Back To Black hopes to remind audiences that Amy Winehouse was a talent not just a tragedy

Marisa Abela portrays Winehouse, lending her iteration of the singer a brash charm that shows what made her real-life counterpart stand out so well in the music industry. Early on in the film, Abela's Winehouse declares that she "ain't no Spice Girl" when discussing a potential record deal, and that's certainly true — no one could sing like Winehouse, and no one was quite like her either.

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Marisa Abela sings in Back To Black and gives a fantastic perforamance. (Studiocanal)

Abela sings throughout the film, and does a wonderful job performing Winehouse's iconic tracks whenever the narrative dictates it. Sure, she doesn't sound exactly like her real-life counterpart but there's only one Amy Winehouse, her performance is meant to be more than just an impersonation of the Rehab hitmaker and its commendable that Abela faced the challenge of singing herself.

Like Taron Egerton did in Rocketman, Abela brings her own style to the performance and she is able to add nuance and emotional weight to her vocals — something that would not have been possible had she been miming Winehouse's real voice. Bohemian Rhapsody and Bob Marley: One Love may have preferred to do things that way, but it works better that Back to Black doesn't because its biggest strength is Abela's stunning performance.

Winehouse's music is an integral part of the story, but the film also examines the singer's personal life from her relationships with her family to her infamous romance with Blake Fielder-Civil — the highs and lows of which was heavily scrutinised in the public eye in real life. Her substance abuse and struggle with mental illness, something that led her to receiving a barrage of negative media attention during her lifetime, is also depicted in the film.

NEWPORT, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 06:  Amy Winehouse headlines the main stage on day 2 of Bestival on the Isle of Wight, England.  (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)
The film examines all aspects of Amy Winehouse's life, but does so without re-victimising her. (Getty Images)

The sensitive nature of these subjects means that there is a fine line that Back to Black had to walk in order to not exploit the singer once again in death. Taylor-Johnson is careful in how she depicts these aspects of Winehouse's life, taking care not to place blame on any one person in her life like her father Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan) or Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell).

O'Connell, for his part, has a roguish charm and wit, and he and Abela have great chemistry together that makes it obvious why the romance between Winehouse and Fielder-Civil came to be. Their tumultuous relationship is not hidden, nor is it over-exaggerated — viewers will be given insight into the difficulties they faced without judgement being placed on them.

Fielder-Civil also isn't painted as the villain he so often has been seen as in real life. Winehouse's ex-husband has spoken publicly about how he shouldn't be held responsible for her tragic death, and the film makes this point quite plainly too.

(L to R) Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil, the pair share great chemistry together onscreen. (Studiocanal)

One scene sees O'Connell's Fielder-Civil call it quits after coming to terms with the toxic nature of their relationship, and he discusses how his drug addiction will see him be blamed for Winehouse's struggles. It's heavy-handed, but doesn't feel misplaced given hindsight of what really happened in the wake of the singer's death.

The film tries hard not re-victimise Winehouse — as has been seen in films like Blonde, it is all too easy for this to happen on the silver screen. Taylor-Johnson treads carefully in Back to Black, and in doing so allows viewers to watch Winehouse's story be dramatised onscreen without doing added harm. It's done well, and credit should be given where it's due.

Leslie Manville is Amy's mum Cynthia in Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Leslie Manville is Amy's grandma Cynthia in Back To Black, and her scenes with Marisa Abela are the most moving of the film. (Studiocanal)

Back to Black also has a number of touching moments, most of which are shared between Abela and Lesley Manville, who plays Winehouse's beloved grandma Cynthia. The actors are a marvel together, and watching their bond be depicted onscreen is one of the highlights of the film.

What other critics think of Back to Black:

The Telegraph: This compassionate but evasive Amy Winehouse biopic avoids the blame game (3-min read)

The Guardian: Woozy Amy Winehouse biopic buoyed by extraordinary lead performance (3-min read)

The Independent: The cringe-worthy Amy Winehouse biopic is too afraid of difficult questions (5-min read)

Digital Spy: Amy Winehouse movie Back to Black fails to hit the right note (5-min read)

There is a lot to like in Back to Black, Abela is stunning in the lead role and her co-stars deliver great performances alongside her, while the music is also fantastic. It is a serviceable biopic, and though it doesn't stand out quite as much as its subject did during her lifetime it retells Winehouse's story with care and that is something to celebrate.

  • 🎞️ When is it out: In cinemas from Friday, 12 April

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 4/5

  • 🎭 Who's in it? Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville

  • 👍 What we liked: Marisa Abela's performance both dramatically and vocally, her touching scenes with Lesley Manville, the film's music, and the care with which Amy Winehouse's story is told so that she is not re-victimised.

  • 👎 What we didn't: This is best described as a serviceable biopic, meaning that it doesn't quite stand out from the crowd even if it retells Winehouse's story with care.

  • 📖 What's it about? Back to Black tells Amy Winehouse's story from the early days of her music career to her meteoric rise to fame, and the challenges that came with being in the public eye and having her personal life laid bare for all to judge.

  • ⏱️ How long is it? 2 hour 2 minutes

Watch: How Back To Black attempts to reclaim Amy Winehouse's legacy