‘Back to Black’ Is An Insult To The Legacy Of Amy Winehouse

marisa abela as amy winehouse holding a microphone in the biopic back to black

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There exists a film that, in two hours, paints a deep portrait of Amy Winehouse’s artistry, psychology, addiction, and the extenuating circumstances that contributed to her death at the age of 27. That film is Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy.

If, while Amy was alive, she ever imagined the kind of film the entertainment industry might make about her, would it have been a biopic that refracted her life into a bizarro-world series of events where she was replaced by an actress who sang all her songs with the wrong inflections? Well, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has now brought that fever dream into reality. Thus goes Back to Black, a film that promises to be “a tribute to the life and music of Amy Winehouse”, but erases the emotional truths of her life and art with every false note.

The film opens with some promise. In her family home, the extended Winehouse clan sings a traditional Hebrew table hymn around the piano. They’re happily interrupted by an older teenage Amy, played by Marisa Abela, who swoops in with a brassy rendition of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, joined by her adoring father Mitch (Eddie Marsan). All we need to know about the young Amy is there — her raw charisma, family dynamic, jazz-idol aspirations, and when she emerges from a bathroom wiping her mouth, an ominous hint at her eating disorder.

But the warmth of that scene soon fades — when Mitch drives Amy back to her mum’s house, there’s an unresolved tension around her parents’ divorce. Frustrated, she retreats into her bedroom, which looks exactly like a film set, and writes the lyrics, chords and melody to ‘What Is It About Men’ in one go.

The next day, Amy rejects an offer from 19 Management, home of S Club 7 and Pop Idol — “I ain’t no fuckin’ Spice Girl!” But after playing a gig, she changes her mind on a whim, signs with 19 and Island Records, flies to Miami to record her debut album Frank, and returns to London for a promotional tour, her face now on billboards and late-night TV. All of this happens within about 15 minutes of runtime.

The film’s focus isn’t on Amy’s songcraft, artistic growth, or really even her success — it’s her tumultuous relationship with future husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), which built her tabloid infamy as much as her music. Abela and O’Connell have chemistry, and clearly revel in playing these roles — she a tough girl head-over-heels in love, he a charming, preppy rogue. Over a long evening at the pub, they flirt and try to out-drink each other, and it almost feels organic — when their dialogue isn’t constantly reminding you that she is the Amy Winehouse and he is the Blake Fielder-Civil.

Since the first poster, much has been made of Marisa Abela’s casting. There’s been gushing praise from the director, crew and voice coach, with Abela attesting to her absolute dedication in preparing for the role. There’s no question that she’s committed — but the character she plays, as written by BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, is strictly one-dimensional. As the film zooms through Amy’s highs and lows — her US breakthrough, the death of her grandmother, being hounded by paparazzi — it loses any sense of the character at its centre. She bounces between states of happiness, sadness, anger, and disorientation, never experiencing more than one emotion at once.

Abela does occasionally manage a decent approximation of Amy’s deep natural husk. But throughout the film, as in the much-mocked viral clip of her singing ‘Stronger Than Me,’ she’s emotionally flat, her expressions are stiff and forced, and her voice is as auto-tuned as a Glee character. 

After the first time Blake breaks up with her, the film cuts to movie-Amy recording ‘Back to Black’ in a studio — where she sheds tears and strains her face as if she’s a musical theatre performer playing to the stands. It entirely misses the point of the song, which isn’t some melodramatic power ballad — it’s about being so heartbroken that you feel like you’re dead. In the same scene from the Amy documentary, the real Amy underplays her vocal performance — the song is more devastating because she’s holding back. After she finishes her take, she smiles at producer Mark Ronson and says, “Oh, it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?”

Back to Black is not interested in that level of artistic nuance. But if this film can’t even recognise that Amy’s contradictions were crucial to her music — that there was humour, toughness, tenderness, and strength in every song — why does it even exist?

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sam Taylor-Johnson said, “Everything that she had achieved was being eclipsed by the tragedy of how her life ended. In listening to her music, it was full of paradox and nuance in a way that seemed to have been neglected. I wanted to take her to a place where she had her agency back.” But for the vast majority of the film, Marisa Abela sounds nothing like how Amy spoke – she’s reciting Matt Greenhalgh’s flat, contrived dialogue, where characters only seem to speak about drugs, alcohol, references to 1960s soul singers, or being Amy Winehouse.

The only words from Amy herself are taken from a real-life interview or two, and her song lyrics. Neither her singing or speaking voice is ever heard — not even over the end credits, which open with an encore of Abela singing ‘Tears Dry on Her Own’, as if we’re expected to stand up and applaud. 

The film only succeeds at one thing: generating sympathy. But both the script and performances ring so false that the emotions you feel for Marisa Abela’s Amy do not transfer in any way to the real Amy Winehouse. Where the Amy documentary showed us the devastating reality of addiction, challenging the viewer to empathise with her, Back to Black is vampiric, restaging her lowest moments for little more than dramatic bloodletting. It creates an unreality where Amy Winehouse was an overhyped jazz singer of average talent, then insinuates that she ultimately relapsed after discovering that her ex had a child with his new partner. Erasing her voice from her own music, and having the gall to invent a motive behind an addict’s overdose — I can think of no deeper insults to her memory.

To put things into perspective: Sam Taylor-Johnson and Matt Greenhalgh have made the exact biopic that Britney fans have been dreading for 15 years. Britney lived to tell her tale, through a memoir that made it impossible for anyone to ever exploit or sanitise her life story again. 

Amy Winehouse can no longer speak for herself, but her music remains. Even in death, she feels more full of life than this film. Her songs have only grown richer and more timeless; still a deep source of solace and comfort. Knowing the indignities and injustices she faced in life can’t tarnish her legacy — they only create a more complete portrait of a flawed, brilliant human.

Back to Black claims to have only the best of intentions, but ultimately has no backbone and no convictions, except the filmmakers’ belief that Marisa Abela supposedly sounds like Amy. If you can’t tell the difference between the voice that Tony Bennett called “one of the truest jazz singers I ever heard”, and a performance so flat and auto-tuned that it might as well have been AI, get your ears checked.

While great art endures in our memories, one can only hope that this film, in its utter insignificance, erases itself from history. 

Kristen S. Hé is an artist and award-winning journalist. She tweets at @kristenisshe.

Image: StudioCanal