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BACK IN BLACK

I Universal Pictures I May 17, 2024 I 107 mins. I

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35%

* As of 5/17/24

Starring:  Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Lesley Manville, Eddie Marsan

Directed By: Sam Taylor-Johnsoni

The extraordinary story of Amy Winehouse's early rise to fame from her early days in Camden through the making of her groundbreaking album, Back to Black that catapulted Winehouse to global fame. Told through Amy's eyes and inspired by her deeply personal lyrics, the film explores and embraces the many layers of the iconic artist and the tumultuous love story at the center of one of the most legendary albums of all time. AMC has been advised that this film contains sequences with flashing lights that may affect photosensitive viewers.

REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus

RATING 1.5 out of 5

Back to Black not only dangerous reframes history to absolve those close to Amy Winehouse but sadly reduces her legacy to a disappointing biopic at best, which loses the talented performances of Jack O’Connell and Lesley Manville in a dull film that fails to capture any of the soul that the world heard in Amy Winehouse’s unforgettable music.

 

Audiences are under no illusion that music biopics get everything about the subject musician’s life correct. As part of storytelling to be able to condense an individual’s life into a two hour movie, creative liberties have to be taken to tell their life story in a succinct way, while building in musical performances to recreate what it would have been like seeing the artist live. Some films have done it better than others, but it has been a while since I have seen a film get with little care to accurately portray a musician’s life story as Back to Black did with Amy Winehouse’s life. Yes, the broad strokes of her life are correct, from her beginnings in the United Kingdom, her torrid relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, the chart topping success of “Back to Black”, and her death as part of music’s infamously tragic 27 club, but the story is framed in such a narrative that simultaneously fails to honour Amy Winehouse’s legacy properly thanks to uninspired direction from Sam Taylor-Johnson and strives to protect those involved in her life from any accusation of reprehensible behaviour.

 

What makes Back to Black such a horrible film is the way in which it portrays Amy Winehouse’s life. There is no soul to any of the film, no life and no passion, which creates for a lackluster viewing. It plays out like a Wikipedia summary, ensuring that all the major moments in Amy’s life are present in the film, but never telling the audience anything new as it remains a purely cursory summary of her life rather than allowing the audience to truly understand Amy as a human being. In a matter of a single scene, Amy magically writes her legendary album “Back to Black” with such a simplicity it makes it look like it was no big deal to do so, failing to capture her musical genius whatsoever. Yes, there are some beautiful moments between Amy and her grandmother Cynthia Winehouse where the development of Amy’s love of music is explored, but they are simply not enough to make the film interesting. And while many music biopics can often be energized by the musical performances, Taylor-Johnson’s direction of these sequences fail to capture the energy of Amy as a performer with bland and static camera work, seeming to forget that concerts are meant to be exciting.

 

Even worse is the messaging about Amy that the film leaves the audience with. Blake Fielder-Civil is seemingly absolved of any wrongdoing, portrayed as a crappy boyfriend who just wasn’t the right person for Amy, skimming over the dark habits within him that set off Amy’s addictions. At the same time, Amy’s overdose is seemingly reduced down to the fact that Amy wanted nothing more than to be a mother and was so heart broken that she couldn’t, after many longing shots of the camera focusing on small children throughout the film, which feels not only dangerous as it misses the many problems she faced that led to her struggles with her sobriety and body image, but reduces her to a simple stock character rather than the complex, intriguing and talented young woman we all learnt her to be in the Academy Award winning documentary Amy. It also comes as no surprise that Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, is given a polished treatment with no hint of a negative portrayal of him, after he threatened to sue the team behind the documentary for an unfavourable depiction of him, and clearly the team behind this film didn’t want a repeat of that. It all feels too sanitized for the sake of protecting those individuals close to Amy rather than telling her story honestly for the world.

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When it comes to biopics, the performances tend to either make or break the film, and while the performances are not bad in Back to Black by any means, they are not enough to salvage the film’s narrative issues. As Amy Winehouse, Marisa Abela is good. She captures the mannerisms of the late singer, especially during the musical performances where she sings live and truly loses herself in the character. Her singing is commendable even if it fails to truly capture that one of a kind voice that Winehouse had, but overall her performance is missing that star quality to leave a lasting impression on the audience. Despite the way his character is written, Jack O’Connell is truly wonderful as Blake Fielder-Civil within the confines of the writing. He brings a mix of charm, danger and allure to Blake that makes it easy to see why Amy fell head over heels in love with him so fast, while teasing the trouble he caused in Amy’s life that unfortunately led her down a dark path, though his true darkness is never fully explored. While the way his character is written will draw criticism, O’Connell is nothing short of excellent and reminds you of what a talented and often forgotten actor he is. To no surprise, Lesley Manville is outstanding as Amy’s grandmother Cynthia, continuing to prove that no matter the project that she is in, her performance is always top notch. The only other major character in the film is Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse, portrayed by Eddie Marsan, and with the screenplay so afraid to show any real substance to the character in fear of angering the real Mitch, Marsan is very forgettable in the film.


Even if you are a fan of Amy Winehouse’s music, there is sadly little reason to watch the singer’s biopic because not even the musical performances create those show-stopping sequences you expect from a musical biopic. It truly begs the question of why we needed a narrative feature about Amy Winehouse after the critically acclaimed and award winning documentary we got almost a decade ago now, other than to rewrite history to make those who were portrayed poorly in that film feel better about themselves. It’s too bad that the great work of Jack O’Connell and Lesley Manville are otherwise lost in this misguided film that is so concerned with absolving certain individual’s actions, that it has the unfortunate effect of negating Amy Winehouse’s immense talent as a musician and complexity as an individual, making Back to Black one of the most frustrating music biopics in recent memory.

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