Back to Black Review

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It’s hard to review Back to Black without reviewing an entire subgenre. It’s not like music biopics are anything new with Walk the Line, Ray, and What’s Love Got to Do with It? still beloved years later. With the recent slew of biopics, though, audiences are starting to grow tired of the formula. That might be at least partially because Hollywood is almost exclusively singling out artists who died prematurely, from Freddie Mercury, to Elvis Presley, to Whitney Houston, to Bob Marley. Amy Winehouse is the definition of a star taken too soon, joining Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin in Club 27. Honestly, a film about the eerie Club 27 phenomenon would likely be more interesting than Back to Black.

Throughout Back to Black, Winehouse continually says that she wants to be remembered for the life she’s lived. Yet, Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay puts a strong emphasis on the years of substance use that would ultimately claim her life. Winehouse’s history with addiction is an integral part of telling her story, but it overshadows her music career here. Although the soundtrack is populated by Amy’s greatest hits, the film provides little insight into her music inspirations. In one scene, Winehouse is in rehab, jotting down lyrics. In the next, she’s sweeping the Grammys with Rehab. We understand how she got from Point A to Point B, but the meat is missing from this Wonder Bread. It oversimplifies Winehouse’s creative process with the same amount of depth you’d find in a Wikipedia article.

The way Winehouse’s substance use is analyzed also feels superficial. We’re given various explanations for Winehouse’s drinking and drug use: the death of her grandmother (Lesley Manville), her husband (Jack O’Connell) introducing her to hard drugs, her father (Eddie Marsan) enabling her, the paparazzi relentlessly pursuing her. However, the film never delves deep into the mental illness that fuels her many vices. Despite the focus on addiction, we rarely see Winehouse at her absolute lowest. You get the sense that the filmmakers didn’t want Back to Black to feel exploitative. That’s admirable, but if you’re going to tackle Winehouse’s substance battle, you have to go all in.

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Back to Black could’ve been an experimental exploration of fame and addiction. Think Leaving Las Vegas or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas set to Winehouse’s music. The film takes no creative risks, though. Despite being rated R, it feels watered down and safe. Sam Taylor-Johnson is best known for directing the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie, the franchise’s best/least bad entry. Chances are she’d rather be remembered for her directorial debut Nowhere Boy, another music biopic written by Matt Greenhalgh. Taylor-Johnson has more talent than some will give her credit, but like Fifty Shades, Back to Black comes off as studio-mandated. Whether or not Taylor-Johnson ever had a unique vision for this story, Back to Black has an off-the-assembly line vibe.

The success of any music biopic usually rests on the shoulders of its star. In the case of Back to Black, Marisa Abela comes close to saving the movie. While she popped up in last year’s biggest blockbuster as Teen Talk Barbie, this is Abela’s first major film as a lead. She not only nails Amy’s London accent and feisty spirit, but Abela also commendably provides her own vocals. Abela might not be able to hit the same notes as the real Amy, but her singing instills a rawness that’s often missing from lip-synced performances. She also avoids turning Winehouse into a caricature, as seen in Disaster Movie. Abela was ready to play Amy Winehouse. It’s just too bad she wasn’t given a better script to work with.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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