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Sensationalized, Shallow Biopic for Amy Winehouse

Norman Warwick has heard

We have recently heard biopics being described as too often bland and sugar-sweet, and current reviews of Back To Black are making almost opposite observations of the film just released about Amy Winehouse. Jade Gomez, Writing in Paste on line, has taken a detailed look at the film, but remarks that this biopic leans too much into the dark cloud looming over the singer’s sad demise.


Gomez also says, however, There’s something to be said about the need for biopics, especially with the creative liberties that can be taken with them. As cliché as the “everyone dies in the end” trope is, it sure is an enticing selling point. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black—her attempt at telling the taboo tale of one of music’s most tragic figures, Amy Winehouse-leans too much into the dark cloud looming over the singer’s sad demise, in turn fumbling what could’ve been a rare, successful dramatization of fame and addiction.

Marisa Abela (left)  is the film’s flickering beacon of hope, tackling the almost impossible task of embodying Winehouse. Compared to other biopic subjects where there’s an excess of source material to choose from, an air of mystery still shrouds Winehouse, as Abela fills in the gaps of her personality found in candid videos, interviews and, to a lesser extent, glimpses of her addiction.  While some scenes are clunky and her accent struggles to get its footing, Abela eventually ditches the Party City-sourced cosplay and loses herself in the role. To the untrained ear, even her singing sounded great, although Back to Black did appear to cut a cringey, “feel-good” sing-a-long once promised by a now-deleted trailer. At times, the weird smirk draped over Abela’s face, one often seen in Disney Channel musicals, took me out of the film, but she also immersed herself in the near-universal feminine experience Winehouse relished in-heartbreak, anger and all.

And that’s where the rest of Back to Black’s problems begin. The beginning of the film dizzyingly foreshadows the tone of the rest of the movie. We’re “introduced” to characters without any context. Winehouse is whisked away in a cab to her home, yapping on about why the youngins don’t listen to jazz, only to piece together right afterwards that the driver was her father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan). Then there’s the boyfriend who then immediately stops by her home. Winehouse proposes sex. He shuts it down, asking, “Can we just listen to Massive Attack?”

Subtlety is not Taylor-Johnson or writer Matt Greenhalgh’s strong suit, which is hilarious when you consider that they are also unable to make important details clear during the course of their mile-a-minute dialogue that somehow says both everything and nothing at the same time. The average person is supposed to know what Winehouse’s snarky Simon Fuller namedrop is, only to eventually figure out that he manages the Spice Girls…because Winehouse says, “I ain’t no fucking Spice Girl.” I’m guessing that was supposed to be a girl power mic drop the filmmakers envisioned as setting the tone for the film, but instead it’s a certified eye-roller.

The rapid, disjointed pacing of Back to Black’s first half-hour sacrifices a lot for the sake of shoving in as much of Winehouse’s alcoholic downfall as possible. She breaks up with her unnamed mystery boyfriend, plays a gig, signs a record deal and, suddenly, her album Frank is out within the span of 15 minutes. Oh, she also has a roommate we only see in one scene. At this point, my notes have turned to a string of curse words as I struggle to piece together the story. As a casual Winehouse fan, it took a great amount of brain power to fill in blanks that those less initiated would have even more trouble with.

For all of its missteps, there are glimpses of girlhood that Taylor-Johnson captures well. The peeks at Winehouse’s messy rooms, from her teen years into adulthood, are a comforting reminder that she was still human, especially when juxtaposed with the squeaky-clean high-rise that marked the peak of her fame. It’s a shame Back to Black ends before we can see how Winehouse adds her signature to the pristine fruits of her labour.

Another small detail I appreciated was the clever nod to Winehouse’s affinity for tattoos, which Taylor-Johnson includes as bookends for each major milestone in her life. Record deal? Tattoo. Marriage? Tattoo. A cathartic moment with her father? Tattoo. Seeing Winehouse’s skin canvas evolve throughout the film is a refreshing glimpse at her young spirit – one often overshadowed by the tragedy to follow. Yet, Winehouse wasn’t without her problems, and to tell her story without touching on them does a disservice to the complicated woman she was.

Scenes between Winehouse and her bad boy lover, Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) ooze with intoxicating chemistry, moments away from disaster. It’s easy to place yourself into her shoes and see the world in him like she did, as evident in a passionate scene between the two where only their enlarged pores, his “Amy” tattoo behind his ear, and their glistening eyes fill the screen. Fielder-Civil (portrayed as a cruel, unreliable boyfriend) is still not given the comeuppance he deserves for his role in Winehouse’s addiction. In real life, he’s admitted to introducing her to crack, heroin and self-harm. In Back to Black, his cocaine addiction is put forth as a mere element of tension in their relationship. He also walks out on one of her gigs in a fit of annoyance, and there’s also a mention of his assault charge that lands him in jail for two years.

The real looming boogeyman of Back to Black is Winehouse’s alcoholism, which the film handles both graphically and distastefully. The foreshadowing is especially egregious on this front. Every scene of her onstage makes sure to linger on Winehouse taking big swigs of liquor. She orders vodka with no ice early in the film. She casually remarks that she’s “had a couple drinks beforehand.” If Taylor-Johnson wanted to replace Winehouse with a vodka bottle mascot, it’d be hard to tell the difference. It’s not fair to solely place the blame for her addiction on Blake or Mitch, two contentious figures in Winehouse’s story. It’s a beast of a disease, and anyone familiar with the struggle can attest to that. However, Back to Black fails to paint an even semi-comprehensive picture of the root of Winehouse’s widely publicized struggle with alcoholism, instead shoehorning in shots of her drinking and snorting substances at almost every minor inconvenience.

Taylor-Johnson didn’t need to tack an extra hour about Winehouse’s childhood onto Back to Black’s already bloated two-hour runtime, but at least briefly touching on Mitch’s infidelity and its effect on Winehouse’s life (and subsequent relationships) would’ve done wonders. Mitch’s exploitation of his daughter has been well-documented, more so after her unfortunate passing. In a harrowing clip from the Oscar-winning documentary Amy, her father meets her on a vacation to St. Lucia with a camera crew in tow, hoping to shoot a documentary of his own. All she can say is “Why have you done this to me? Are you only interested in me for what you can get out of me?” Winehouse has even hinted at succumbing to her “Freudian fate” on Frank’s “What Is It About Men?”, a scathing reflection on her father’s wrongdoings.

Taylor-Johnson’s queasy portrayal of naïve women with abusive men is becoming a pattern, as evident by her disastrous Fifty Shades of Gray adaptation. At least in that film, Ana eventually leaves Christian, finally waking up to his disrespect of her boundaries (assuming we completely ignore the sequels). In Back to Black, Winehouse is portrayed as a pathetic, lovesick woman whose mental health hinges upon one terrible man. In reality, Winehouse was documented as being deeply in love with a man who, at one point, got into a bloody brawl with her in 2007. But the film also doesn’t give any space for Winehouse to be a victim, despite Blake openly admitting to getting her hooked on Class A drugs—not to mention her history of self-harm, eating disorders, and an exploitative relationship with her father.

In a pivotal scene after Blake’s incarceration, Winehouse plays a baffling, fictionalized Greenpeace benefit show. She plays cat-and-mouse with the security guards, and we take perspectives of both the adoring fans and of a fly on the wall. Confusion around her mental state and sobriety combines with an awe of Winehouse’s star power, clashing on screen. Fans become nothing more than disembodied hands, and the paparazzi lingering throughout the film become blinding flashes. The made-up show and incident are possibly in reference to her 2008 live comeback show at Rock in Rio post-rehab, muddied with lateness and a weak voice haphazardly remedied by throat lozenges. For those who weren’t tapped into the meteoric rise of the singer, Back to Black evokes the same feelings of guilt some people experienced upon her shocking death: Was it in front of our faces all along?

Back to Black attempts to show a gritty yet romanticized version of a story we’ve all heard before. Winehouse is the classic tragic figure: an otherworldly talented, beautiful woman engulfed in disaster. But as we approach 15 years since her passing, and as we have seen countless retrospectives done on the relationship between media and similar figures such as Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears, it’s unfair and irresponsible for Back to Black to ignore the nuances in her history and instead place the onus solely on her. Some of us still remember a world where Winehouse was hounded by paparazzi, called a “junkie” and found that her misgivings took a larger stage than her talent. Back to Black refuses to acknowledge the humanity beneath it all, unfairly sensationalizing a talented, troubled woman beyond the grave.

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Matt Greenhalgh
Stars: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville
Release date: May 17, 2024


The primary source for this piece was published on The Paste on line magazine. It was written by Jade Gomez a self-described dog-mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.

Other contributors have been attributed in our text wherever possible.

Images employed have been taken from on line sites only where  categorised as  images free to use.

For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023  entitled Aspirations And Attributions.

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