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Review: Back to Black (2024)

Back to Black (2024)

Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Premise: A biopic of singer Amy Winehouse (Marisa Abela) focusing on the recording of the album Back to Black and her tempestuous relationship to husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell).

What Works: Biopics of artists need to link the creator and their work. Amy Winehouse’s short life and the backstory of her album Back to Black lend themselves to this connection. Winehouse wrote the album while going through a difficult period that included the death of her grandmother, a passionate but abusive relationship with her husband, and a descent into drug and alcohol addiction. The content of the album and Winehouse’s identity as a singer are wrapped up in her personal life and the film Back to Black is an involving portrait of a singer and songwriter whose life and work were intertwined; the characteristics that made her a great musician also contributed to her untimely death. The film is built around the relationship between Amy Winehouse and her husband Blake Fielder-Civil and this is the strongest aspect of the film. Actors Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell are a great pair; the attraction between these two is powerful but also toxic. This is not a battered woman narrative; as portrayed in this film, their dysfunction was mutual with Winehouse and Fielder-Civil acting as enablers. One of the admirable qualities of Back to Black is its honesty. The film is not a hagiography. The filmmakers clearly admire Winehouse as a musician and view her personal struggles with compassion but they also acknowledge her flaws including her drug addiction and violence. The film benefits from its casting. Marisa Abela’s resemblance of Amy Winehouse is uncanny and Abela conveys Winehouse’s passion and independence but also her vulnerability. Jack O’Connell plays Blake Fielder-Civil and he has considerable charm. One of the most surprising aspects of Back to Black is its regard for Fielder-Civil who is allowed some complexity and nuance.

What Doesn’t: Show business biopics frequently follow a familiar formula in which talented characters are consumed by addiction and other carnal pleasures. Back to Black adheres to that narrative. This iteration is better than most due to its concentration on the characters but the direction of the story feels familiar and inevitable. The picture is quite blunt about Winehouse’s drug use and its portrait of her and Fielder-Civil is nuanced. However, that brutal honesty and complexity are not extended to anyone else. Winehouse’s father (Eddie Marsan) and her agents and managers are portrayed as at best naïve as she descends into chemical dependency.

Bottom Line: Back to Black is a fairly standard show business biopic but it’s done well. It does exactly what this kind of film should; Back to Black connects Winehouse’s life with her work while offering a complex character study. 

Episode: #999 (June 9, 2024)