Back to Black review: "A competent but occasionally clunky Amy Winehouse biopic"

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black
(Image: © StudioCanal UK)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

A competent if occasionally clunky biopic, enlivened by a superb Marisa Abela, who truly inhabits Winehouse and brings those songs to life.

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"I want to be remembered for being a singer," intones Amy Winehouse (Industry’s Marisa Abela) early on in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic of the iconic London singer. It’s a noble sentiment, especially given Winehouse’s tabloid-created infamy: her struggles with drink and drugs were regularly splashed across the front pages in the lead up to her untimely death aged 27 in 2011. 

Unpacking Winehouse’s story, from the time of her debut album Frank to the creation of her hugely successful follow-up Back to Black, this holds back on the muckraking as it attempts to celebrate her work.

Back to Black marks scripter Matt Greenhalgh’s reunion with Taylor-Johnson, 15 years on from their collaboration on Nowhere Boy, which chronicled the life of future Beatles star John Lennon. Here, we get a glimpse of Winehouse’s family life, with nan Cynthia (Lesley Manville) and cabbie dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan), as she moves up the music industry food chain – from being managed by 19 (Simon Fuller’s company, which previously signed the Spice Girls)  to joining Island Records.  

Tapping into Winehouse’s volatile, no-nonsense personality, the film only truly hits its stride when she meets Blake Fielder-Civil (a cocksure Jack O’Connell), the man who becomes her husband and joins her in a haze of substance abuse as her fame hits levels of near-hysteria. Sadly, Winehouse’s switch from being anti-drugs to a regular user isn’t captured with particular finesse; Taylor-Johnson largely holds back on conveying the grimier aspects of the singer’s decline. 

As such, the film doesn’t land the same emotional impact as Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary Amy. Instead, it works best as a love story between the singer and Fielder-Civil – their tumultuous time together inspiring songs like Back to Black itself. Knitting it all together is a terrific turn from Abela, who not only looks the part (tattoos, beehive hairdo, etc.) but gives a remarkable vocal performance, sounding uncannily like the singer on record. 

Ultimately, Back to Black is a sobering – if rather strait-laced – look at the perils of fame, not least when showing rabid paparazzi stalking the singer’s every move. While it doesn’t exactly get under its subject's ink-covered skin, the caption over the end credits explaining that Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning after a long period of sobriety feels potent. It’s a stark reminder of the tragedy of a huge talent being cut off in her prime. 

Back to Black is in UK cinemas from April 12 and in US theaters from May 17. 

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Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.