Maverick Life


Amy Winehouse biopic ‘Back to Black’ sees some success despite heavily stacked odds

Amy Winehouse biopic ‘Back to Black’ sees some success despite heavily stacked odds
Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's 'Black to Black'. (Photo: Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

Amy Winehouse is the latest musical legend to get a biopic treatment. In ‘Back to Black’, Marisa Abela steps into the troubled singer’s stilettos and does her own singing, delivering a performance that does a lot to appease the sceptics waiting with talons out for this film.

An Amy Winehouse biopic was always going to be an utter downer of a watch. The life story of the English singer — which ended at just 27 — is a fundamentally tragic one, one that encapsulates the consequences of addiction and the dark side of fame, excess, and bad influences that resulted in a life cut short.

To make a successful biopic, at least one in the eyes of the cinema-going public, is to celebrate the life that was lived.

Those attempts are clear with the new film Back to Black, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and starring Marisa Abela in the lead role. Taylor-Johnson’s approach to the material is to lean away from Winehouse’s career high points and more into the personal life that happened around them. Does it work? The result is more of a decent enough watch, and less a deep dive into its subject.

Back to Black tells Winehouses’s story, establishing her Jewish upbringing in South London, the relationship with her taxi-driving father (played by Eddie Marsan) and grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), how she began to gain popularity with her regular nightclub gigs and her first album, Frank in the early 2000s. Winehouse proves to be a loose cannon who seeks to “live” her songs, and is not particularly driven by the success her musical career brings her.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Eddie Marsan as Mitch Winehouse

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Eddie Marsan as Mitch Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s ‘Back to Black’. (Photo: Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

The film details the performer’s relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), a young man who would go on to be Winehouse’s husband and eventually ex-husband — but not before the two’s combined addictions kickstart a downward spiral laced with alcohol and narcotics. It was, however, to culminate in Winehouse producing Back to Black, one of the most successful albums in UK history and winner of five Grammys in 2008.

While it’s a good choice to hone in on Winehouse’s family and romantic life as the emotional pillar of Back to Black, it does leave other circumstances around the singer’s success unexplored.

The majority of the runtime is spent on her relationship with Fielder-Civil, who is the winner of the revisionists’ game here as he is depicted with more sympathy than he probably deserves (the real Fielder-Civil has spoken about how he introduced Winehouse to hard drugs during their time together).

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O’Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil. (Photo: Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

Furthermore, one can’t really shake off the feeling that you’re watching an anti-drug PSA, with Amy’s drug-taking put front and centre to the point it overshadows all other parts of the narrative. This is best exemplified very early on in Back to Black in a scene where Mitch Winehouse is driving his daughter back from a family gathering and explicitly orders her not to experiment with drugs. This is a biopic; you don’t need that heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: For Amy Winehouse life was a losing game

Fortunately, like most musical biopics from the last few years, Back to Black is sustained by the efforts of its lead actress. Marisa Abela does stellar work portraying Amy — one that demonstrates her range above and beyond her work on the HBO drama Industry. Thanks to Abela, the audience feels sympathy for Amy from the word go, and she successfully conveys the subtleties of a talented and powerful figure slowly losing control over the course of the film’s runtime.

Abela also gets points for singing the songs herself, contributing to the authenticity of the performance. Meanwhile, Lesley Manville’s role as Cynthia Winehouse produces the most tear-jerking moments of the film.

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse and Lesley Manville as Cynthia Winehouse

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse and Lesley Manville as Cynthia Winehouse. (Photo: Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

Back to Black also benefits from its smart use of Winehouse’s music, which is part of the filmic composition. The titular song is used during a funeral scene (as it was in its original music video) to outstanding effect, and the climax where Amy sings “Rehab” at the 2008 Grammy Awards ceremony, is a strong number to end on. And, while this may just be indicative of the popularity of Winehouse’s music, the film’s rendition of “Valerie” was powerful enough to prompt the audience at my screening to sing along.

Black to Black

‘Black to Black’. (Photo: Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

While it’s difficult to judge the film as its own thing, divorced as it is from what happened in the real world, and was reported on heavily, Back to Black is never a bad watch. Ultimately, it will achieve the invaluable goal of drawing attention back to Winehouse’s too-short discography, which continues to boast some of the greatest lyrics ever put to a beat. Despite what the title suggests, though, it never feels like it’s spending that much time digging in dark places, which is a disservice to the tragedy at its core. DM

Back to Black is in South African cinemas now, having released on 12 April. This story was first published on PFangirl.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.