Back to Black

Directed By Sam Taylor-Johnson

Starring – Marisa Abela, Eddie Marsan, Jack O’ Connell

The Plot – A celebration of the most iconic, and much missed, homegrown star of the 21st century, the film tells the extraordinary tale of Amy Winehouse (Abela). Painting a vivid, vibrant picture of the Camden streets she called home and capturing the struggles of global fame, this music biopic honors Amy’s artistry, wit, and honesty, as well as trying to understand her demons. An unflinching look at the modern celebrity machine and a powerful tribute to a once-in-a-generation talent.

Rated R for drug use, adult language throughout, sexual content and nudity

BACK TO BLACK | New Trailer | STUDIOCANAL (youtube.com)

POSITIVES

Despite receiving the conventionally typical biopic treatment that I was initially fearing “Back to Black” isn’t without credible merits in everything from gifted performances to seamless production values, which prove some effort was initiated towards the integrity of its product. It feels like a responsible take to herald Abela above all of them, as not only does she conjure the sweet and unforgiving sides of Amy effectively, but also audibly pulls off the remarkable feat of emulating Amy’s unique sound, with all of the music in the film being performed by Abela herself. While Marisa looks nothing like Amy without the help of enhancements, she silences any debates from this critic on if she was in fact the right person for the depiction, especially since she’s the only performance on-screen that supplants any kind of depth or versatility to their portrayal. In addition, the killer combination of costume, make-up and wig designs transform Abela with the duration of the film, making the engagement feel as close as possible to Amy being brought back to life. What’s most impressive is the tremendous attention to detail with recreating some of Amy’s most iconic looks, and while most of the movie’s presentational pallet feels uninspiring in its blandness, the funding of the budget clearly went to the right places, helping to attain credibility and believability that enriches that big screen appeal that TV movies of the week simply can’t attain. Lastly, and perhaps most expectedly, the film’s soundtrack is blessed with an abundance of Amy’s catalogue between various albums that articulate her range as a performer, but as well a rich collection from outsider inspirations who she drew so much of her distinct flavor from. While most of the selections should be left to surprise, I can say that I appreciated how the film is all about tipping its hat to the trailblazers of the industry, who without them we maybe never would’ve experienced Amy’s boldly definitive style.

NEGATIVES

Being a minimal Amy Winehouse fan at best, I took “Back to Black” as an opportunity to educate myself on who Amy was away from the glitz and glamour of the stage, and like most contemporary biopics, found myself highly disappointed by the lack of insight given to Amy the person, which makes this film feel like a Wikipedia summary of the events that everybody already knows about. The screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh feels like a two hour music montage, with very few moments of downtime to let the conflicts and stakes materialize naturally in their pacing, and with so many of the developments surmising quite literally out of thin air, it gives the movie’s structure a disjointed consistency that leaves it very difficult to remain invested, especially during an opening act where Amy’s stardom materializes practically overnight without any prolonged drama to her dreams, and a second half that tragically underscores her impact to legions of fans who celebrated her. In addition, the film takes the strange framing of making Amy her own worst enemy, which creates some factual inaccuracies to the various true stories. This is where the film truly feels scrubbed of all of its responsibility factors, as Amy is not only shown trying drugs by herself during the first time (An inaccuracy that Blake himself has taken responsibility for), but also absolved itself of prominent influences in her life as a way to make her story grittier and play towards the screen with more cinematic drama thrown in for good measure. This gives the film a tasteless enveloping, as Amy’s inability to defend herself or the actions that the movie blames solely on her, but beyond that feels like the polar opposite of a movie like “Elvis”, which could be argued as a puff piece for Pressley’s estate, to which “Back to Black” feels like the shameless indulgence to deface Amy’s legacy, all the while ignoring vital aspects like her own personal struggles such as an eating disorder, which fueled much of her difficulties adapting to a life with so much privilege. Beyond the fallacies of the script, the acclaimed ensemble, which on paper feels Oscar-worthy, are wasted and unfortunately forgettable playing some of Amy’s key figures, especially the trio of Lesley Manville, Eddie Marsan and Jack O’Connell, who casually slip into frame when the movie absolutely requires their presence. Manville is decent in the minimal amount of screen time she’s given, but nothing on par for her levels of capabilities, and the duo of Marsan and O’Connell are quickly dispersed after such prominent introductions, with little to nothing to do in depictions that obviously bare an off-screen influence of their portrayals to the picture. O’Connell in particular has a magazine of ammunition to unload to the possibilities of his character, but as Amy grows more reckless and out of control, Blake finds peace within himself, and soon enough everything that drew us to the character like an accident we simply couldn’t look away from, is exchanged for a by-the-numbers transformation that is one of the many elements that transpire out of thin air. As for Taylor-Johnson’s impact to the proceedings, despite some initially integral establishing shots of the pubs and neighborhoods of Camden, his influence to the presentation falls virtually ineffective towards eliciting any element of compelling style or radiance to go with so much possibility in a story rooted in pop light stardom or European backdrop. Most unusual are these temporary color grades that are submitted to scenes and sequences involving Amy battling conflict, and while the obvious intention was to externalize her grief in the way she sees the world, for audience interpretation, the result becomes a cheap looking effect in post production that feels distracting far more often than it does enhancing. Likewise, Sam’s grip on the story feels paralyzed by the horrendous editing job that has been given to this finished product, resulting in a balancing partner for much of the aforementioned disjointed consistency of the storytelling that leaves it difficult to follow along. That’s not to say that “Back to Black” is esoteric or even cryptic in the slightest, but rather key events fire themselves off towards the audience, one at a time, throughout the movie’s two hour duration, and once expectations have settled in and we’ve come to expect what we ultimately get, it strains the pacing into feeling every inch of that duration, in the worst kind of way. It isn’t enough that the film is unavoidably predictable in both the true story aspects and music biopics being so interchangeable in structure, but it’s even worse when audiences are given very little time to live and breathe inside of these gripping circumstances, at a breakneck pace that continuously trips over the steps of its own abrasive sequencing.

OVERALL
“Back to Black” is another in a growing laundry list of disappointing music biopics with an inability to live up to the magnitude of their iconic performers. In the case of Amy Winehouse, it does favor a transformative performance from Marisa Abela, as well as several favorites from her catalogue that cement a must-own soundtrack for any fan, but ultimately falls victim to topical storytelling and offensive framing devices with little to no factual accuracies about their usage, resulting in sensationalized drama to which we say “No no no” to.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

One thought on “Back to Black

  1. I was excited to see this movie so I was a little bummed when I saw the rating you gave it. So many performers fall victim to tragedy so I was intrigued to see the circumstances leading up to and surrounding her demise. It’s disappointing to hear the inaccuracies of the movie and The Way she is portrayed as having soul responsibility for her misfortune.
    Like the movie flowed very easily also. I may still see it, but I always appreciate your reviews so I know what to expect.
    Well written review by the way

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