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“Back to Black” Needs Rehab

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 16th, 2024

Back to Black (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2024) 1½ out of 5 stars

If you want to watch a compelling biopic about the late, great singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, I can recommend, with all my heart, the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary by Asif Kapadia, Amy. Unfortunately, the new dramatization of her life, Back to Black, starring relative newcomer Marisa Abela (She Is Love), is not anywhere in the same league. Featuring a series of missed opportunities, the film is only mildly redeemed by a central performance graced with occasional flashes of genuine emotion. Not to make light of Winehouse’s well-publicized struggles with addiction (to which I can relate from my own personal experience), but someone, somewhere, at some point, needed to stage a major intervention.

Among the many cinematic sins committed by the filmmakers—director Sam Taylor-Johnson (A Million Little Pieces) and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) foremost among them—is that they never manage to celebrate the talents that made Winehouse so beloved by so many. Music is in short supply here, and the creative process almost entirely absent. Opting to lean into tired montage tropes instead of attempting to explore Winehouse’s inspirations and methods, they offer a ghoulish portrait of a woman undone by demons both internal and external. All the while, they tell us that she is special, forgetting to show us how and why.

Marisa Abela in BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release ©Focus Features

The film pays superficial homage to the central milestones of Winehouse’s career but provides little context to the cause and effect of this or that occurrence. We meet our protagonist at 18, apparently fully formed yet also distressingly empty. She’s a vessel into which simultaneously everything and nothing has been poured. Drink of it and receive no sustenance whatsoever.

There is some flash of life when Winehouse meets the man who would be her undoing, Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell, Trial by Fire), but there’s also little coherence to the development of that relationship. Perhaps Greenhalgh and Taylor-Johnson are doing their best to plunge us into the mind of an alcoholic, where little matters but the next drink, but there’s no way that this was the sum total of Winehouse’s thought process, since we have her songs to show she was far more than that.

l-r: Jack O’Connell and Marisa Abela in BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release ©Dean Rogers/Focus Features

In a similarly frustrating vein, almost all significant plot developments occur offscreen, requiring either onscreen characters to explain recent events or another montage to pop up. How could so many people be so inept? Winehouse deserved far better. I therefore point you back to my first paragraph. Check out Amy. It’s the tribute worth watching.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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