Back to Black (2024, dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson)

by | Apr 14, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 122 mins

UK Distributor: Studiocanal

UK Release Date: 12 April 2024

WHO’S IN BACK TO BLACK?

Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Bronson Webb, Ansu Kabia, Harley Bird, Matilda Thorpe, Sam Buchanan, Jeff Thomas Tunke

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sam Taylor-Johnson (director), Matt Greenhalgh (writer), Nicky Kentish Barnes, Debra Hayward and Alison Owen (producers), Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (composers), Polly Morgan (cinematographer), Laurence Johnson and Martin Walsh (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Rising singer Amy Winehouse (Abela) falls in love with Blake Fielder-Civil (O’Connell)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON BACK TO BLACK?

In 2011, when Amy Winehouse passed away at the age of 27, the jazz and soul singer gained access to an exclusive and somewhat morbid collection known as the “27 Club”. Fellow members include Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix: all of whom, like Winehouse, were musicians and artists who met their untimely demise at the exact same age, often from drink or drug overdose (as she had done). In some ways, their posthumous collective is intended to immortalise their youth in addition to the work they left behind, but in a lot of others, it can be difficult to see them as anything more than the tragic artists they ended up being, which for someone as heavily scrutinised by the media as Winehouse was, is uncomfortable to comprehend.

Props, then, to director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Matt Greenhalgh (reuniting after their previous collaboration on Taylor-Johnson’s feature debut Nowhere Boy) for at least attempting to pierce through the public condemnation of Amy Winehouse with their ultimately sympathetic biopic Back to Black. Their film is, like the media’s perception of Amy herself, often messy and even incoherent, but it does make the bare minimum in humanising this member of the 27 Club more than it easily could have.

The film introduces its interpretation of Amy Winehouse (Marisa Abela) as a lively and carefree young woman who enjoys drinking with her friends across Camden, romancing a string of on-off boyfriends, and maintaining a close relationship with both her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville). Of course, there’s nothing she enjoys more than music, and she’s already made a name for herself among various jazz clubs and local venues, which eventually attract the attention of record producers who sign her up and produce her first album. However, it’s when she has a romantic pub encounter with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) that Amy’s life is changed forever, as not only does the heartbreak she goes through with him inspire her second and most famous album Back to Black, but the toxic combination of his drug addiction and her worsening alcohol dependency ultimately leads to numbered days for their relationship.

Almost inevitably, Back to Black succumbs to numerous conventions of musical biopics, which previously plagued the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and the recent Bob Marley: One Love. Oddly, though, the film tends to sideline most of the career highs that Winehouse experienced, including her creation and recording of the very album that this film borrows its title from, which here is reduced to a brief montage where we don’t even see how she wrote such signature tracks like “Rehab” or “Valerie” or, indeed, “Back to Black”. Like many formulaic biopics, it presents the central singer’s journey toward fame and fortune as an incredibly straightforward process, obviously done to help the narrative of the film flow better, but those who know how difficult and often soul-destroying such a process can actually be, will recognise all the corners that this and many other films like it have cut.

There are even times when the film will just randomly jump ahead to certain scenes without showing the context; one such sudden cut finds a bruised Winehouse bolting from a hotel straight into the unforgiving frenzy of the paparazzi, with no true explanation as to what exactly had just happened to them, which momentarily throws you off the path that the film is otherwise trying to lead you down. The only way that’s possible to piece it all together is if you already have a substantial knowledge of the singer, because then it will be easier to pinpoint certain events, but those much less familiar with her life who may be hoping for something a bit more straightforward in its explanation of who she ultimately was will not find much to gather from this often-empty narrative. Ironically, it is the more factual version of this story, specifically Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary Amy, that dives much further into this person and her troubled existence, and lays out in full exactly what she went through in her short and chaotic life, not to mention how much more accessible it is than the more straightforward scripted drama presented here.

While it is a little clumsy and not quite as well-executed as it maybe thinks it is, Back to Black does have some admirable qualities that keep it afloat. For one, lead actor Marisa Abela is genuinely excellent as Amy Winehouse, for while there isn’t much of a physical resemblance between her and the real person, the actor effortlessly captures the musician’s infectiously rambunctious nature, right down to her on-stage swagger where she always seems intoxicated, even if she’s sober in that particular moment. Furthermore, the actor contributes her own rather impressive singing voice when it comes to performing some of Winehouse’s signature songs, which of course isn’t an exact replica of the actual singer’s vocals, but they’re strong enough to at least elicit an equal amount of emotion as the real Winehouse did.

The film also takes the interesting angle of having the relationship between Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil take centre stage, forming an acidic romance story in the same vein as Sid and Nancy (though perhaps not nearly as provocative in its depiction of their destructive habits). The combination of Taylor-Johnson’s tender direction and Greenhalgh’s levelled script does make it easy to understand why these two would be drawn to one another in the first place, while the chemistry between Abela and Jack O’Connell is palpable enough to see the sparks flowing between them, even when both are at their lowest moments together or apart. It does form a compelling hook that, regardless of whether or not it’s accurate to their real relationship, makes this story more tragic and upsetting for general audiences.

Even if the film has stumbling blocks too big to ignore, Back to Black does respect its central member of the 27 Club enough to humanise someone who, not that long ago, was the butt of numerous jokes by all of us. For a more thorough and complex study of Amy Winehouse, though, seek out Kapadia’s documentary instead.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Back to Black is an often messy but ultimately sympathetic portrayal of Amy Winehouse, which struggles to tell the story of the tragic singer without succumbing to numerous musical biopic conventions, but the noble efforts of the filmmakers to find intriguing angles to the narrative, as well as an excellent lead turn by Marisa Abela, keeps the otherwise unbalanced film from going, well, back to black.

Three out of five stars

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