Back To Black review — Cracked portrait of toxic love

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson | Written by Matt Greenhalgh | 122 min |  ▲▲▲△△

That Queen musical drama, Bohemian Rhapsodyhas a lot to answer for. A big box office hit and an Oscar winner(!), it’s spawned a host of other musical biopics — a few OK but many mediocre, or worse. Some, like the recent Bob Marley: One Love, are more or less hagiographies, pleasant enough to sit through for the music but not presenting a lot of genuine insight into its subject.

To its credit, Back To Black goes a different way. It’s not shy to present the troubles of wildly talented North London singer Amy Winehouse, and diverts from some of the pitfalls of the genre by focussing largely on her love life. That’s what it does well, but its successes don’t entirely gloss over the film’s mistakes, like expecting the otherwise impressive lead actor to sing all of Winehouse’s music and still capture that special magic.

The movie — from the writer and director of Nowhere Boy and the writer of Control —  tracks 10 years of Amy’s (Marisa Abela) life, starting with her days as a promiscuous teenager writing songs in her bedroom. It’s a compelling foundation as the film almost promises to offer an English/Jewish blue-collar drama with an ensemble cast, including Amy’s Nan, Cynthia (the always fabulous Lesley Manville), who was a performer in her youth, her divorced parents, various friends, a roomie, and a manager. But the film rapidly and unfortunately divests itself of most of these characters as it goes along.

We get Amy’s early success with her first album, Frank, playing bar gigs and putting her foot down when her record company, Island, pressures her to change her style by giving up her guitar on stage. Even though she fought them, as well as her manager, Nick (Sam Buchanan), she still ended up doing what they asked, but the film doesn’t bother to acknowledge that.

Again, it tends to push her music career to the background — no tales of touring here, though she did, and no exploration of her relationship with her band. In place instead is Blake (Jack O’Connell), the love of Amy’s life, and that’s not a bad thing from a plot perspective. The movie gives us one truly exceptional scene down the pub where he introduces her to “The Leader Of The Pack” by the Shangri-Las, and we all get a sense of what she sees in this sketchy dude. Then, when he betrays her, she uses that pain to write an album of songs, Back To Black, sending her into the stratosphere.

Abela is pretty great as Camden Town’s most famous resident, making it clear Amy Winehouse had a whole lot of confidence and was nobody’s fool, and the two leads have fantastic chemistry. By devoting so much of the movie to their romance, Winehouse’s career becomes a subplot, and that works. It means less of a focus on the singing problem, which could have easily been solved by using Winehouse’s original vocals. It’s a distracting directorial error.

Abela has clearly worked hard to capture Winehouse’s mannerisms and technique, but she could train for a decade and still not reach that unearthly gift that we all heard when Amy Winehouse sang. At best she’s a competent impersonator, but that’s not enough when the camera sits on her face while she performs the entirety of “Rehab,” and all you do is think about the ways she not Amy Winehouse.

The other problem: Back To Black is facing off against Asif Kapadia’s Amy, the devastating 2015 documentary about the singer’s life. It excoriated many in her circle including her husband, who comes off as a total dick, and her cabbie father, Mitch (played like a teddy bear by Eddie Marsan in Back To Black), who the documentary suggests ignored her problems and tried to capitalize on her fame.

What to make of this much more sympathetic take — in an “endorsed” account — of people who seemed pretty awful in the doc?  It’s hard not to see this as a cash grab, an effort to further extend her legacy in a way that will benefit those people who were shits to her.

Back To Black also implicates Amy as abusive to Blake, painting the couple as toxic codependents and addicts without having the courage of, say, Sid And Nancy, to really get to core of their problems or show us the violence.

And that’s why the casting and the chemistry is so important. However this diverges from the actual history, as characters Amy and Blake are believably in love and in turmoil. The picture manages to capture the joy they shared along with the tragedy. which makes it worth seeing.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.