Back to Black: Amy Winehouse biopic fails in its aspirations to focus on the music

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film tries to look beyond the tabloid sensationalism and celebrate Winehouse’s extraordinary talent, but despite a strong lead performance, the script just doesn’t measure up.

10 April 2024

By Rebecca Harrison

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black (2024)
Sight and Sound

Back to Black sets itself up as a celebration of Amy Winehouse’s musical genius, and a rejection of the sensationalised image cultivated by the tabloid press, which fixated on her chaotic relationships, hardened attitude and substance abuse. Attentive to her gentle love for grandmother Cynthia, the film situates Winehouse in domestic spaces (her Jewish paternal household; her flat in Camden) as often as on the stages where she became famous. In doing so, it opens up – though does not always realise – possibilities for reimagining the musician’s life amid stories about her behaviour that have threatened to eclipse her work. 

From the jukebox that takes pride of place in her flat to lead actress Marisa Abela’s impressive vocals on Winehouse’s songs, the film tries to put the music first. Winehouse’s introduction to future husband Blake has him miming to the Shangri-Las, in a scene reminiscent of Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing (1987). And Abela is attuned to Winehouse’s physicality: small but recognisable gestures permeate her performance – that snaking of the neck, that dancing hand that floats around her head, pausing to touch her beehive. 

Winehouse’s perspective is reinforced by Polly Morgan’s beautiful cinematography, and notable care is taken with the film’s design, particularly its emphasis on mid-2000s fashion and the singer’s love for pin-up style. As Winehouse’s fame increases, so does her desire to hide beneath ever-bigger hair and darker eyeliner. 

Meanwhile, images of Winehouse multiply as the camera roves between mirrors, windows, and billboards. It encircles her in restless close-up, juxtaposed with lens-flared point-of-view shots that share her clouded vision with the audience. With awareness of its own role in the Winehouse industrial complex, the film often positions its own gaze among the paparazzi awaiting her outside every door. There’s even a hint of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (2016-19) in its rendering of Winehouse as a camera-aware performer.

But while there’s much to admire about Back to Black, it falls short of the filmmaker’s aspirations to focus on the music. The script seems haunted by a fear of litigiousness and Abela’s singing doesn’t quite match Winehouse’s emotive command. Like Winehouse herself, the film teeters between genre-subversive brilliance and well-worn tropes about the tragic woman. Whatever audiences decide, as Abela delivers her closing number to the camera, Back to Black will no doubt succeed in reminding them of Winehouse’s extraordinary talent and era-defining songs.

 ► Back to Black is in UK cinemas 12 April.