Back to Black (R) ★★

Review Date: May 21st, 2024

If the recent spate of bio-pics of musical stars imparts one lesson, it's this: artists should be remembered for their work not for the Hollywood-ized retellings of their lives. Back to Black is the latest endeavor by the motion picture industry to exhume the story of a dead musician whose ultimately tragic life has been turned into a series of cliches about fame and addiction. It's an open question about how much of the real Amy Winehouse is to be found in a movie that is obsessed more with her flaws and dependency on alcohol and drugs than about her craft and prowess as a singer/songwriter. Oh, the music is there, but it seems more like a background track than a focal point.

The film covers roughly the period from 2002, when Winehouse (Marisa Abela) signed with Simon Fuller's 19 Management and ending shortly before her death in 2011 at the age of 27. Back to Black covers most of the key events of her adulthood: her rise to stardom, her tumultuous love affair with eventual husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell), and her triumphant Grammy night. Excepting the first half-hour, most of what happens occurs through the haze of an alcoholic stupor (to which she eventually adds drugs). The movie paints Amy as rarely being sober - whether or not this is an exaggeration, it makes for a downer of a movie instead of a more nuanced narrative.

One question that arises when discussing a bio-pic, especially that of a singer/musician, is whether the lead actor is engaging in mimicry or giving a good performance. In the case of Marisa Abela, it's more of the former. To her credit, she does an excellent job replicating Winehouse's vocals (she did most of the singing) and stage presence. However, her attempts to recreate the singer's mannerisms in private settings is artificial. Although there are some intimate moments that work, the portrayal as a whole is over-the-top and it often feels like Abela is trying too hard. No one else in the film leaves much of an impression - Jack O'Connell's Blake and Eddie Marsan's Mitch Winehouse are underwritten. Another key figure in Winehouse's life and career, Mark Ronson, warrants only a passing mention, which seems odd to say the least.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose reputation remains scarred by Fifty Shades of Grey, seems to want to deconstruct Winehouse and explore the singer's darker side. That might have been an interesting approach if not for two things: Winehouse's demons were well-recognized during her life (to the extent that the cause of her death came as a surprise to no one) and Taylor-Johnson fails to explore how the singer's alcoholism either helped or hampered (or both) her ability to create. Even the most bland bio-pics of musicians (and there are dozens to choose from) spend more than a perfunctory scene or two on the creative process. That's the biggest disappointment here - that Back to Black's Winehouse is an addict first and everything else second.

As for the music, we get full renditions of Winehouse's biggest hits but there are times when it seems the songs are included to (a) sell a soundtrack and (b) because, like Priscilla, the movie would feel unbalanced without them. My reaction is that I could learn a lot more about Winehouse by listening to her music than by watching this by-the-numbers sketch of her adult life.

© 2024 James Berardinelli