Pallid Amy Winehouse biopic is an impressive platform for its star, Marisa Abela

'Back To Black'

Source: Dean Rogers / Focus Features

‘Back To Black’

Dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson. UK. 2024. 122 mins. 

Phenomenal success, a tragically early death, the creation of an absolutely distinctive singing style and look – there’s plenty to get to grips with in the story of music phenomenon Amy Winehouse. But in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back To Black, Winehouse’s brief, brilliant life is essentially pared down to a tale of poisoned romance.

Notwithstanding the drugs, drink and despair, the film has something of the tone of those romantic photo-stories once featured in girls’ mags like My Guy.  

As music biopics go, this one is fairly sober – eschewing both the hagiographic kitsch of Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury) and the flights of fancy of Rocket Man (Elton John). But Taylor-Johnson – in her fourth feature, following Nowhere BoyFifty Shades Of Grey and A Million Little Pieces – offers a pallid account of Winehouse’s story, ironing out some thornier issues, and bringing little that’s new, either in fresh revelations or distinctive angles on the familiar. Still, the film offers an impressive platform for its young star Marisa Abela. Hefty promotion will ensure that the film reaches a generation that missed out on Winehouse’s prime, and boost the recorded legacy. Otherwise, Taylor-Johnson’s solid but pedestrian direction means that Back To Black is never more than Amy Lite.

Amy (Abela) is first seen as a North London teenager at home with her cab driver dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and doting grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), including a sequence with friends enjoying a traditional Hebrew singsong around the piano – mercifully, the only point where the film adopts this folkloric approach to Amy’s Jewish identity, thereafter barely mentioned. Amy then delights the assembly by singing ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, showing her distinctive stylings already fully formed – which conceivably they may have been at that age, although it doesn’t come across as remotely convincing to show them as such.

The film breezes rapidly through Amy’s ability to mine romantic disappointment (such as a coyly recalcitrant boyfriend) for song material, her signing by management executive Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), and a number of triumphant London shows; only 20 minutes in, Amy is a successful artist and already has the basics of the distinctive wild-girl Winehouse look.

Back To Black finds its groove, and a distinct burst of energy, when Amy is sitting in Camden watering hole The Good Mixer and in struts wide boy Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), causing the lustful sparks to fly. Their initial courtship – the film’s liveliest content – fully ignites when he introduces her to ’60s girl group the Shangri-Las by lip-synching to their ‘Leader Of The Pack’, O’Connell wittily stealing the show at this point.

The couple’s increasingly troubled relationship becomes the focus from here on, as other figures in her life recede into the background; indeed, her mother Janis (Juliet Cowan) barely emerges into focus. An exception is Cynthia, Amy’s professed ‘style icon’, seen carefully crafting her granddaughter’s trademark beehive hairdo. There is convincing warmth between Abela and Manville, but the latter is wasted in the thinly conceived role of a wise old bird who knows the ropes (and her jazz), and comes out with clanking lines like, “You’ve got an eye for the bad boys, Amy Winehouse.”

As for Eddie Marsan’s Mitch, he registers as jovial, occasionally heavy-handed, but generally a tender, solicitous father, if a little bumptiously self-promoting. Various accounts of the singer’s career – notably Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy – have raised the issue of just how responsibly supportive Mitch was. But here, Marsan’s likeable turn helps brush away such awkward questions – and shows that this excellent actor is too easily cast with a view to making audiences feel comfortable.

Taylor-Johnson shows a rather workaday visual imagination, too often letting familiar London locations (Camden pubs and streets, Ronnie Scott’s, Soho’s Bar Italia) work their own photogenic magic. Some of the musical moments are pitched to faintly crass effect: a montage of Amy successful but desperately alone, to the title song; a sequence set to Billie Holiday standard ‘There Is No Greater Love’, cutting from tenderness to Amy in a violent rage. And the leitmotif of a pet canary uncaged is the most leaden kind of symbolism.

In other respects, Back To Black is a well-mounted package, certainly when it comes to confident recreations of the Winehouse repertoire, with recording eminence Giles Martin as music producer. Abela’s performances of the songs are spot-on: she has a forceful delivery and impressive command of Winehouse’s signature note-bending, emphases and wry inflexions. A 2023 Screen Star of Tomorrow, best known for TV’s Industry, Abela emerges more than honourably here. If she doesn’t absolutely barnstorm, it is because of the unusual challenge of the role, which demands that she catch Winehouse’s familiar and often extreme mannerisms, but also that she bring something individual to the part – a tall order for the most experienced player, not unlike the challenge faced by Ana de Armas playing Marilyn Monroe in Blonde.

Abela sharply conveys Amy’s brashness and vulnerability – and idiosyncrasies like her high-heeled stagger, used brilliantly in one concert sequence. But overall, the actress projects a wide-eyed gaucheness rather than the harsher colours of the later Amy, and while the film eschews morbid over-emphasis on the physical wear of Winehouse’s addiction years, Abela always comes across fresher and more full of life than those bleak phases would seem to call for.

However, Abela undeniably has chemistry with O’Connell, whose performance shows exactly why Amy would fall for Blake’s brash, self-mocking show-offery. O’Connell is very charismatic here, somewhat channelling the feckless-rogue archetype represented by Terence Stamp in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow – yet, while misguided and often obnoxious, this Blake never feels quite convincingly toxic. In fact, he is provided with a loathsome sidekick (Bronson Webb) to artificially make him sympathetic in comparison.

What the film never gets to grips with is the riddle of how an exuberant, seemingly grounded jazz-loving teenager ended up so rapidly and whole-heartedly yielding to self-destructiveness; and it never questions how the pressures of both family and the music business affected her so ruinously. Unlike much writing about Winehouse, and unlike Kapadia’s documentary, Back To Black doesn’t go there, and that is a valid choice – yet its focus instead on star-crossed amour fou doesn’t pay off dramatically. Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh – who already has music-biog experience with Anton Corbijn’s Control and Taylor-Johnson’s own Nowhere Boy – manages to liven things up with evocations of Amy’s line in snappy repartee. But the film’s flatly functional visual choices mean that, notwithstanding the drugs, drink and despair, the film has something of the tone of those romantic photo-stories once featured in girls’ mags like My Guy.  

Key pieces from the Winehouse repertoire, solo and with band, certainly make this a very listenable film. By contrast, the indefatigable duo of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis offer an uncharacteristically unobtrusive and conventional score, although there is the bonus of a sombre, lushly orchestrated new ballad that Cave sings over the end credits.

Production company: Monumental Pictures

International sales: Studio Canal,

Producers: Alison Owen, Debra Hayward, Nicky Kentish Barnes

Screenplay: Matt Greenhalgh

Cinematography: Polly Morgan

Editors: Martin Walsh, Laurence Johnson

Production design: Sarah Greenwood

Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

Main cast: Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville