Back To Black

It’s been 13 years since she died, but it often feels like Amy Winehouse never went away. The  details of her life, all the squalor and the glory, continue to be raked over in the tabloids. Every new British singer from Adele and Raye struggles to escape the long dark shadow of her towering beehive. And the content stream is never ending: after the legacy album editions, the books and Asif Kapadia‘s Oscar-winning documentary, we have, after a promotional campaign that seems to have lasted for most of 2024,  Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic, Back To Black.


Let’s be clear: if you’re looking for dramatic insight into the raging soulstorm that fuelled her greatest music and tore her mind and body apart, you are barking up the wrong tree. If it isn’t quite the Hallmark version, Back To Black plays very safe with some very dark materials.


But it may be impossible to make an entirely dull film about Amy Winehouse. There are hints of something interesting here. Marisa Abel, one moment looking like Dot Cotton’s dissolute daughter, the next like a young Streisand in a Ronnie Spector wig, is remarkable and her portrayal deserves a better script. The first third of the film, following the gobby, gloriously talented girl from Southgate through the training pens of the music industry, leading to a memorable encounter with Jonathan Ross, capture some of her defiant spark. The first encounter with Blake Fielder-Civil in a Camden boozer, where he’s inspired to heights of seductive patter over a pint at the pool table, hint at why Amy fell for him so hard.

The key scene in the movie might be late on, after another failed reconciliation with Blake, where Amy asks her dad to take her back to Soho for a visit to Ronnie Scott’s. She breathes in and sighs: “Pure intoxication.” Back To Black presents Winehouse as an artist in thrall, helpless before the power of a certain dark glamour – whether she finds it in her nan’s black and white photos of the 60s, the voice of Sarah Vaughan, the sound of the Shangri Las, a blond boy in a Fred Perry, or at the end of a crack pipe.

The film hints at these compulsions, but never really follow through. Back to Black ultimately feels like a film pathologically afraid of offending anyone – or more to the point, getting sued. Amy’s dad, Mitch, who felt so insulted by his portrayal in Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, is here portrayed by Eddie Marsan as a proud, loving and concerned dad. Fiedler-Civil, Amy’s seducer, tormentor, and grand passion, comes across as a kind of blond SuperHans – a diamond geezer who just happens to find crack very moreish.


Arguably this is all a useful corrective to the twisted pantomime versions the tabloids have studiously curated over the years. But turning this life and this talent into a product so inoffensive seems contrary to the very essence of Amy Winehouse.