Back to Black is frustratingly standard, but features a star-making lead performance

Back to Black is frustratingly standard, but features a star-making lead performance

It’s easy to watch a trailer for Back to Black and roll one’s eyes at the entire concept. It pains me to admit that I went against everything I stand for as a critic by attending the film looking for reasons to hate it. My pre-screening excuses for such a dumb bias would have been the following:

  1. Amy Winehouse is simply too unique a talent to recreate in any appreciable sense. 
  2. The excellent documentary Amy already exists. 
  3. After Walk Hard so expertly parodied the musical biopic, and then Rocketman spun its own story into a biopic musical to great success, what’s the point in even trying to do this anymore??

And ya know what? Even writing those points down now, I will fully admit that all of them hold just as much water as they did back when the trailer premiered. All three apply as accurate and fair criticisms of Back to Black’s whole existence. 

But here’s the thing: Back to Black is pretty good!

It’s not great, mind you. It’s not even very good. But nonetheless, by the end of the film I found myself invested in the characters and the story. And on the walk home from the theater, you bet your beehive I popped my headphones in and grooved to the titular album the whole way. So even though it’s a criminally standard film about a distinctly UN-standard artist, it’s one that doesn’t fail to entertain, and houses two tremendous lead performances. 

These performances come from Marisa Abela, as Winehouse, and Jack O’Connell as Blake, Winehouse’s longtime lover (and as many would assert: enabler). Abela runs into a similar problem that Rami Malek encountered when playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Namely that the real world personality is so heavily dripping in talent and unique iconography that it’s hard to portray them without it feeling like a Halloween costume. Much like Freddie Mercury, there is and only ever will be one Amy Winehouse. She will never be replicated in talent or style, and no one who tries to capture her singing voice will ever be able to step out of her acoustic shadow. Yet with all of these hurdles in place, Abela shines, doing a much better job completing an impossible task than anyone could have ever imagined. Again, this is to speak of the uniqueness of Winehouse’s talent rather than any shortcomings in Abela’s performance (of which there are none — I had never heard of her before this, but she has gained a fan). 

Beyond the costumes, all of which are accurate, but by nature cannot feel genuine, Abela embodies Winehouse’s physicality in a way that is genuinely surprising. A scene late in the movie where she pops down off the stage to engage with an adoring crowd, all while security is scrambling to make sure she doesn’t topple over in her gigantic pumps, showcases how thoroughly Abela disappears into Winehouse’s overall way of being. And as for the singing, Abela again acquits herself way better than anyone could reasonably suspect. The actress was no singer prior to tackling the role, but spent months undergoing intense vocal training. And at the time, the decision had not yet been made as to whether or not her vocals would even be used. Ultimately, her newly crafted singing ability paid off. Had the vocals been dubbed, it would have, as evidenced by Bohemian Rhapsody, served only to disconnect an audience who, by the very nature of the project, was already going to be hard to reach. 

As for Blake, whose name was featured prominently in Winehouse’s lyrics, O’Connell brings him to life in a way that doesn’t betray the fact that he was a dude with a lot of problems, and it also makes a strong case for why young Amy found him so charming. 

Where the film falters is in what portions of Winehouse’s life it chooses to chronicle. The filmmakers have made it very clear that they wanted to put forth a warts-and-all depiction, but that they also wanted the focus to be on Winehouse’s music and legacy as opposed to her already well publicized struggles and eventual death. Yet despite these intentions, the film focuses almost wholly upon the latter. The story begins as Winehouse is already experiencing success, and within just the first few minutes she’s well on the path to superstardom and all the troubles it brings. Since Amy Winehouse fans (see: this film’s target audience) likely watched her tragic downfall in real time, the bulk of the film feels superfluous and occasionally of questionable taste. A more interesting film would chronicle at least some of her pre-fame life. 

The trailers for Back to Black plainly state that we’re supposed to be witnessing the inspirations behind the titular album’s biggest hits, but the film fails miserably at taking us there. At the time the story starts most of the songs are written, and short of a scene where the record company tries to get her to go to rehab, she says no, and her enabler father asserts that she’s fine, there’s absolutely nothing of note to that end. Kudos too to Eddie Marsan, who does a fantastic job bringing Papa Winehouse to icky life. Marsan is a performer with a wider range than he’ll ever get credit for, and here he provides a thoroughly considered supporting turn. 

Yet for all the film’s faults, and all the ways it falls squarely in line with every other musical biopic in existence, I found myself emerging with a renewed respect for one of the great musicians of our age. While most of the film’s stated goals aren’t even close to being accomplished, the most important one is: Reminding the world that Amy Winehouse, for all her larger-than-life legend, was a human being just like anyone else. Sure, her talent burned brighter than most, and it rocketed her into the stratosphere of fame, but her heart and soul existed right here on Earth with the rest of us. 

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Written by Matt Greenhalgh

Starring Marisa Abela, Eddie Marsan, Jack O’Connell, Lesley Manville

Rated R, 122 minutes