‘Back to Black’ Review: They Tried to Make a Good Amy Winehouse Biopic (No, No, No)

Marisa Abela plays the iconic chanteuse in a bland, formulaic musical

"Back to Black"
"Back to Black" (Credit: Focus Features)

Before we talk about the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black” it’s important that we all understand the definition of the word “formulaic.” (For those paying attention, no, this is not an encouraging way to begin a movie review.)

Lots of movies adhere to one storytelling formula or another, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. A formula is just a framework of familiar dramatic elements which many movies adhere to because those elements are usually satisfying. This is how we get genres and subgenres. Fans of romantic comedies, underdog sports movies and found footage horror flicks walk into their theater knowing what they’re going to get. That’s why they bought the ticket in the first place.

But the difference between a movie having a formula and a movie being what critics describe as “formulaic” is that some movies are nothing but a formula. They’re doing what’s familiar and nothing else. A formula is just a movie’s skeleton. To make that movie feel alive you have to add muscle and flesh on top of it, in the form of personality or twists, because if you don’t the film is just bare bones, and bare bones don’t live except in creaky horror movies.

Which brings us back to “Back to Black,” which is about as barebones as a musical biopic gets and that’s saying something. This genre has been played out, unironically and with little innovation, for so many years that simply telling a singer’s life story and wrapping it around how they wrote their most iconic songs doesn’t pack any punch by itself.

“Back to Black” tells the story of Amy Winehouse but shows no passion in telling it and has nothing to say about the events that transpire. It’s the utter minimum of what a biopic can be. It’s not just mediocrity, it’s mediocre mediocrity.

The film stars Marisa Abela (“Barbie”) as Amy Winehouse, who at the start of the film is eighteen years old and speaks exclusively in exposition. In a few lines we learn she was kicked out of drama school, she’s in love with mid-20th century music and aesthetics, and everyone thinks she’s a great singer. Also, she loves her nan, Cynthia (Lesley Manville), who used to be a singer in the 1960s and wore her hair in a beehive, which will be very important later. Also, her dad is played by Eddie Marsan, who won’t have nearly enough to do.

Amy’s musical talent is such a foregone conclusion that “Back to Black” makes it seem like her first album was basically handed to her. An agent calls her up one morning and offers her a music career out of the blue, to which she rebelliously declares, “I ain’t no Spice Girl.” She records her debut album before the movie can make it out of the first of its many montages. The biggest roadblock in her early career, apparently, is her agent saying she should stop playing guitar on-stage and focus on crowd work.

Amy quickly meets the love of her life, Blake (Jack O’Connell), whose personality excites her, but who also likes abusing substances. Winehouse’s own addictions are introduced as organically as a propaganda scare film, with cigarettes and alcohol leading to — gasp! — marijuana. But when she finds out Blake snorts cocaine, Tim Meadows from “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story” steps into their bedroom and yells “You don’t want no part of this, Amy Winehouse!” (Okay that doesn’t happen, but we’re all thinking about it.)

Amy and Blake are destined to be together only to break up and get back together again. Their relationship inspires Winehouse’s most popular album, “Back to Black.” We know this because right after the movie clearly and hamfistedly shows us exactly how their relationship inspired all the songs in “Back to Black,” there’s a scene where Winehouse does an interview and explains in no uncertain terms that, yes, her relationship with Blake inspired all the songs in the album. Thank god, because there’s no other way the audience could have possibly known that.

It’s standard operating procedure for musical biopics to dramatize the events in an artist’s life that inspired their popular songs and then show them writing and performing said songs. But it’s very difficult for those scenes not to play like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch because they’re rarely subtle. In “Back to Black” there’s a bit where Winehouse’s agent tries to make her go to rehab, and while she doesn’t specifically say, “No, no, no,” she does refuse and that moment is genuinely tragic. But the movie isn’t just foreshadowing her tragic death, it’s also going out of its way to set up the creation of her most popular song, and that corny clumsiness completely undermines it.

Abela seems genuinely invested in Winehouse’s plight and goes to great lengths to recreate her stage persona, sometimes to good effect. But she never quite captures Winehouse’s energy. Actors in biopics don’t have to be chameleons, and some of the best biopic performances feel like dramatic interpretations instead of close impersonations. Abela’s performance has a youthful energy that persists no matter how hard Winehouse falls into addiction or emotional distress, which calls a little more attention to the performer than the character they play.

The most frustrating thing about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Back to Black” — besides the line “I’m not a feminist, I like boys too much” — is that Winehouse’s brilliant art and tragic fate have inspired millions of fans all over the world but they haven’t inspired anybody to make a better motion picture. There’s nothing cinematically bold, nothing inventive in the telling, and ultimately very little point other than that her life was sad.

This film has so much material to draw from. How is there so little to be said about the way her agent, her label, her father, and her husband either overlooked, enabled and/or exploited her substance abuse? The film spends more energy assuring us that Winehouse made her own choices, and that the people in her life who are still alive don’t deserve to judged harshly, which can’t help but seem a little convenient. No statements are made about the way the entertainment industry takes advantage of creatives, and too often fails to protect them from adopting dangerous coping mechanisms when they endure extreme lifestyle changes as a result of celebrity.

Instead, we get a generic sightseeing tour of Amy Winehouse’s life, showing us basically what happened while offering no insight and little style. “Back to Black” cheated itself, and you know… that’s no good.

“Back to Black” is in UK theaters on April 12 and U.S. theaters on May 17.

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