Biographical dramas are a harrowing venture because you condense a person or collection of people’s history into a two-hour digestible medium. When the subject is no longer alive, that story becomes the amalgamation of thoughts and voices. There’s the director, the writer (or writing team), and the surviving members of that person (whether it be family, an estate, or a combination of both). Humans, especially musicians, have given us joy, but we are also complex individuals with ups and downs. In the cases of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Elvis,” “Bob Marley: One Love,” and “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” these films try to highlight the iconic works of these figures that stand the test of time and their faults and complications—not at all an easy task. 

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Back To Black” comes at a time when we are not that long removed from Amy Winehouse’s tragic death due to alcohol poisoning on July 23rd, 2011. Her second album, “Back To Black,” was number eight in Apple Music’s 100 Best Album list just yesterday. We still hear her soulful voice in our minds with clarity, her 50’s style hairdo and retro style, how her songs and attitude were true to artistry, the unkind and ferocious nature of the tabloids, and ultimately how addiction claimed her life.  Asif Kapadia’s 2015 award-winning documentary Amy was a perfect chronicle of the legendary singer’s life from the words of those who knew her and Amy’s voice. With these things in mind, you have to ask why is there a need for this film so soon.

In many ways, it doesn’t seem like “Back To Black” knows the answers to justify its own existence instead of a mode of correction for some of the living. There’s even an undercurrent of unkindness shown to the late singer, even as the performances are seemingly at war with property, providing her memory with the multi-layered nature she exhibited throughout her life. Winehouse was an old soul that revered singers like Tony Bennett rather than be lumped into the overly poppy aesthetic of that time. She was also a person who wanted to be loved and utilized her music to depict the deep pains she was struggling with, manifesting in drug/alcohol addiction and bulimia. “Back To Black” feels like it is taking a hands-off approach to center Winehouse as a tornado that destroyed everything and everyone that happened to be within it. 

(L to R) Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O’Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Everything begins with a voiceover where Marisa Abela, as Winehouse, proclaims her wishes “for people to hear her voice and forget their troubles for five minutes.” It’s there where you feel the Matt Greenhalgh-written film will hone in on the musicianship the late singer had that gave the world “Frank” and “Back To Black.” However, this biopic seems overly concerned with delving into her life’s more salacious and contentious details. It’s no fault of Abela, who does her best to channel Winehouse’s spirit and mannerisms into this role. She even goes so far as to do mostly all of the vocal work, which is a tall order given the voice that sang these songs in the first place. Despite her best efforts, Abela is mainly disappointed by the story’s imbalance, favoring messiness over artistry.

 In the film’s second half, you barely see Winehouse record any of her Grammy award-winning album (even though the creative process is one of the pillars of who she was). There are re-creations of some famous Winehouse’s performances throughout. Still, the central mediation of the process comes in a lonely New York montage while the audio track of Winehouse sings the self-titled song. In the first scene, Winehouse is seen running in hopes of a reconciliation with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell)—considering the voiceover, it’s the perfect personification of the whiplash “Back To Black” exhibits. Abela and O’Connell exhibit chemistry as a tumultuous couple, especially in the bar scene where they first meet. It quickly goes into dissent, where the film mainly points the finger at Winehouse for being the issue. 

Another troublesome aspect is the portrayal of Winehouse’s father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan). Again, this is not Marsan’s fault. If you take “Back To Black” at face value, a person could assume
Amy’s father was her best friend. The film hints at her issues with Mitch initially, including how he left her mother and how they manifest in Amy. However, it glosses over some contentious things in the 2015 documentary (“My Daughter Amy” documentary) for a more supportive figure approach. Addiction is a disease, and it was undoubtedly heartbreaking in the manner in which it took Winehouse’s life at such a young age. However, the problem with “Back To Black” is that its primary goal is to define Winehouse’s life in extreme lack. A recurring theme that the film circles back to is this sense that Winehouse’s desire to have children and the lack of them was the cause of her tragedy.

It puts a bow on the complete misunderstanding of who Winehouse was. Is “Back To Black” interested in putting broad strokes on the canvas and allowing dramatization to fill in the blank spaces for the audience? It seems so. Does it sometimes feel that “Back To Black” wishes Winehouse was some fictional character for which it could make a new beginning, middle, and end? That also feels that way. 

We know that Winehouse would love again after she divorced Fielder-Civil and even felt trapped by the unbridled success of her defining album. Therein lies the problem with biopics of this caliber: they look to play the hits from musical and personal perspectives with little else to consider. ‘Back To Black” willingly becomes a motion picture version of the paparazzi it sometimes looks to critique. 

Main Photo Credit: Focus Features