‘Back To Black’ Is an Off-Key Biopic of Amy Winehouse That Waters Down Her Story

The tragic fall of Amy Winehouse was devastating for the world of music. She was a great talent who made two wildly impressive albums before dying at the infamous age of 27. It is a story of a legend in the making that abruptly ended shortly after its starting point. Winehouse was trapped in a vortex of intense addictions, personal demons and a relationship that obsessed and broke her. You could see the toll of it on her. “Back To Black” features a strong performance from Marisa Abela, who is more than apt for the role of Winehouse. But she is stuck singing great songs in a movie where the notes are too soft and too brisk.

We first meet a scrappy and talented Winehouse living her late adolescence in Camden Town, London, with her working class Jewish family. She is a jazz aficionado, already writing songs, most of the time alone in her room with a guitar. Her favorite topic is heartbreak, musing on the details of current and ex-boyfriends. While playing the local club scene in the early 2000s, she grabs the attention of young manager Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan). Things move fast in movies. Soon enough, Amy is recording her debut album, “Amy,” and introducing the U.K. to her blend of jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues. Her father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan), keeps a close eye and tries to help Amy listen to record executives who want to shape her image. One day at a pub, Amy meets Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), a production assistant with charisma who introduces her to the music of the Shangri-Las. Their attraction is instant and soon leads to a marriage laced with hard drugs.

As with many recent music biopics, a curse on “Back To Black” is the involvement of the artist’s estate. Mitch Winehouse was outspoken at not being pleased with Asif Kapadia’s excellent 2015 documentary “Amy,” which told the Winehouse story in all its liveliness and sadness, ultimately winning an Oscar. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Matt Greenhalgh work with the estate’s blessing to make a rather tame, quick-consumption movie. Taylor-Johnson previously directed “Nowhere Boy,” a much more insightful take on John Lennon’s struggles as a youth. In that film, we could see the link between his early scars and the emerging artist. It also didn’t attempt to encompass Lennon’s and the Beatles’ entire career, saying a lot by focusing on one specific chapter of Lennon’s journey. “Back To Black” suffers from the same structure as other recent biopics, such as “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Instead of challenging itself to really turn Winehouse’s life into piercing drama, this movie prefers to quickly bounce around the highlights.

Marisa Abela is the key highlight, giving the lead role that sense of a smart but dark soul. She’s likable but isn’t intimidated due to her intense confidence on the kind of music she knows she wants to perform. Abela also sings during live moments, not matching but channeling Winehouse. Alas, “Back To Black” never really dives into Winehouse’s music, keeping it as background noise. Ironically, the best performance belongs to Jack O’Connell lip syncing the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack” for Amy at a pub. It’s one of the few genuine scenes where we see both the chemistry between these two musical misfits and how a song can define a special moment. The rest skips over the very nature of songwriting or the way Winehouse’s songs were indeed her soundtrack. Everything is watered down and kept polished, so the artistic demons never emerge. Mitch, who by all accounts was an overbearing control freak, is simply a caring dad. Winehouse’s descent into hard drugs is captured with the spirit of a ‘90s TV special. We never feel the angst, physical decay and horror of loneliness and addiction. What was needed was a grimier, bolder approach, like Alex Cox’s “Sid & Nancy.” 

When telling the story of any music artist the songs are essential, but with Winehouse there is a particular importance, considering how they are an open chart of both her outer and inner life. The relationship with Blake became an intense, toxic union, one that broke first when he returned to his previous girlfriend (who appears for a few seconds in the movie as a bratty blonde), then fully ended once he reportedly sobered up in jail. It should be great film material. Blake’s negative impact is all over Winehouse’s 2006 album “Back To Black.” How the making of that album is treated in this film is disappointingly sparse, as if it merits little interest in terms of how Winehouse functioned as an artist. The album’s most famous song, “Rehab,” doesn’t even get a proper showcase. Taylor-Johnson recreates Winehouse’s performance of the song for the Grammys, where she won “Record of the Year,” among others. A song with dark humor and stark confessions turns into cornball triumphalism. In the “Amy” documentary, we learn Winehouse also exclaimed after this very performance that, “this is so boring without drugs.”

Too many scenes are spent with Winehouse evading photographers or staring into the London skyline. There is more heart in scenes involving Winehouse’s grandmother, Cynthia (Lesley Manville), and how her death left a deep scar. We want more of this sort of insight but the movie chugs along into quick overviews. The edgiest it gets is re-staging Winehouse’s 2008 Glastonbury performance, where she was clearly drunk, announcing her husband was getting out of jail in two weeks and snapping at those who booed. It’s a moment full of danger and tragedy when she gets offstage to sing “Me & Mr. Jones,” while drunkenly running in front of the audience. “Back To Black” then gets back to casting Winehouse in an absurdly saintly glow. She looks so pristine before ascending the stairs in her home on that fateful July 2011 date, when she would die from alcohol poisoning. We don’t see the hard road paved towards that finale or its aftermath, since the screen goes white as if this were a religious movie. One gets the sense that Amy Winehouse herself would have shunned this biopic for how safe and shallow it all is. She might have even written and dedicated a much bolder, scathing song to disown it.

Back To Black” releases May 17 in theaters nationwide.