8 May 2024

Movie review: Back to Black

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 8 May 2024

This new biopic of British singer Amy Winehouse is everything you were expecting and less, says Simon Morris.

Marisa Abela as British singer Amy Winehouse in the 2024 biopic Back to Black

Marisa Abela as British singer Amy Winehouse in the 2024 biopic Back to Black Photo: Focus Features

It's a mystery why anyone thought there was any need to make a dramatised version of the same story so soon after Amy.

While that documentary benefited from plenty of shots of Amy Winehouse herself, particularly singing, this version features actress Marisa Abela doing a sort of karaoke version of Winehouse's music.

And in many ways the whole film is a kind of karaoke version of Amy's life covering all the beats we've heard so often in the past.

There she is growing up in London, supported by her family - particularly her dear old Nan, a performance phoned in by Lesley Manville.

Also doing what's expected of them are Eddie Marsan as enthusiastic taxi-driver Dad - I lost count of how many times he reminded us "That's my Amy!" - and Jack O'Connell as ne'er do well boyfriend Blake.

And like all bad biopics, every event has to be in some way connected to her famous songs.

In this world it's never because a talented composer sat down and slogged it out. It has to be the result of inspiration, and a particular event that gets acted out.

The story stands and falls on how much we believe in Amy's love for the unlikable Blake, which was frankly always going to be a bit of a hard sell.

Amy Winehouse's best album Back to Black may have been inspired by Blake but only after he deserted her .

Right from the start the tabloids, the fans - even Amy's family - couldn't work out what she saw in him. And the film certainly doesn't crack that puzzle - they probably didn't know themselves.

They did seem to bring out the worst in each other, and, despite what the film tries to say, their relationship was, in many ways, the least interesting thing about Amy Winehouse.

But that's music biopics for you. The fact is, the reason they get made at all is the one thing that's hardest to capture in a film, and that's the music.

We're left wondering how her first, award-winning album Frank got made or why the second one was so different and so popular in America.

Instead we're given a parade of biopic cliches, as Amy struggles to tell her truth, despite crass industry suits who don't understand her, and insensitive tabloid hacks and paparazzi who want to turn her into something she's not.

Back to Black is everything you were expecting and less.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has been here before. She did a biopic of the early days of John Lennon, which was rather more successful, perhaps because it concentrated on his pre-Beatle youth.

But Back to Black suffers from covering familiar territory but adding nothing to our understanding of Winehouse's life, career or music.

Curiously everything that's wrong with Back to Black, which has been generally slammed by the public, was also wrong with Bohemian Rhapsody, which they mostly loved.

I've no idea why that was. Possibly audiences suddenly realised in this case that they didn't want a biopic of Amy Winehouse quite as much as they thought they did.

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