top of page
  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Back To Black' review: Marisa Abela tries to make Amy Winehouse go to rehab

Marisa Abela singing and performing on a stage

Oh, would you look at the time? It's five o'clock somewhere so of course it's time for another biographical drama about an artist that is hoping to take the world by storm. Back To Black follows the life and career of Amy Winehouse (portrayed by Marisa Abela), the London-born British singer-songwriter, from her early musical career in her late teens with her debut album 'Frank' to her remarkably successful mid-20s with the titular album before she tragically passed away at the age of 27. Involved in her life are also her future husband Blake (Jack O'Connell), dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and grandma Cynthia (Leslie Manville), while we also witness Amy's eventual struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders and strained relationships, a lot of which she shared with Blake. The film is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Matt Greenhalgh.

Back To Black presents itself pretty much just like you'd expect, which makes sure that it relies on familiar tricks to impress audience members but it also means that you can easily identify all the cracks on its surface or deeper down. It's a strangely dissonant film about minor keys—addiction, unchecked mental health, codependency, violence towards yourself and others—clashing with an idea of a person rather than seeing or observing them. This means that the final result on the big screen feels shallow, sometimes even cringeworthy because the film is clearly interested in Amy as a talent and as a public figure but it has no bravery or want to look at the cause and effect of any of those aforementioned issues. And because of it, the moments of success also don't hit you as they should so the movie tends to flatline completely.

When you have that type of superficial reading of your subject and themes, it's not wholly surprising that much of that is also reflected in Taylor-Johnson's direction of the piece. Everything feels either safe or stilted and the director very rarely does anything remotely interesting with the frames. A few musical scenes come off as a parody, including an early rendition of 'Fly Me To The Moon', whether that's due to bland blocking or overly produced vocals and music (overseen by music producer Giles Martin and music supervisor Iain Cooke) considering the ''live'' settings. Those scenes and many other talky scenes are also awkward because Taylor-Johnson and cinematographer Polly Morgan's shots lack depth and the sort of unkempt nature that Amy and people in her life seem to possess.

Abela has an uneven streak trying to elevate Amy from the shallow end of the pool (table) as her outing starts as an imitation more or less, before the actor finds the right rhythm and tempo to let moments breathe. In the latter half, she's able to carry a few emotionally heavy scenes while the vocals are always on point. O'Connell, Marsan, Manville and others sadly don't give her much support as most of them sleepwalk through the movie. Competently? Sure. None of them just deliver more than that.

There are some bright spots in the sea of grey to be found, to be clear. Martin Walsh and Laurence Johnson's editing is surprisingly focused and trusting of actors as the approach is often quite patient, whilst bringing in more energy whenever Amy finds harmony in the music. It understands the noisy melancholy inside her mind as we see how no one else chooses to care about it; paparazzi want their payday, Blake wants someone to make him feel better about himself whilst Mitch perhaps values Amy succeeding in his dream career more, unintentionally or not, than he values her peace of mind. One scene between Amy and Blake in a prison visiting space and later one between her and Mitch where she identifies as an addict are the only great scenes in the movie because they understand that melancholy, that dark noise. Back To Black just needed to understand it consistently and more frequently.

Smileys: Editing

Frowneys: Characterisation, directing

You know, it's no good.


After Misery's logo with the text ''all things film & television'' underneath it.
bottom of page