Today: July 9, 2024

Back to Black

Well, this is deja vu. When I recently reviewed the home release of Bob Marley: One Love, I noted it was a bland, by-the-numbers biopic that paled hugely in comparison to the exhaustive documentary feature Marley. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black suffers the same fate – it’s a generic, surface-level snapshot of the late singer that exists in the shadow of 2015’s Amy, the warts-and-all documentary by celebrated filmmaker Asif Kapadia.

Back to Black is another Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007’s prophetic music biopic spoof that is just as hilariously relevant today. It seems like nothing has been learned over the past 17 years – while there are exceptions like Love & Mercy, the music biopic has retained its seem tired and cliche-ridden formula and that is evident here. Letterboxd user dannyboyff laments “Bohemian Rhapsody birthed a wave of absolute doghsit music biopics” in their brief review, and that is sadly true. 

Where the film certainly succeeds is in Marisa Abela’s soulful performance as Amy Winehouse. Her vocals are impeccable, deftly recreating Winehouse’s iconic voice – while also totally compelling in the film’s quieter and more tragic beats. Her Amy’s descent is heartbreaking. It is just a shame she is having to deal with such a naff script.

Accusations of the film’s exploitative nature in principle are perhaps a little baseless – cries of “too soon” are laughable, this isn’t the first time Amy’s story has been told, and many stories like hers have been dramatised in the past. The issue is that it is just so pedestrian, and certainly the tone of the film is disrespectful. Done well, a biopic of Amy Winehouse could be amazing – a raw portrait of addiction, stardom, and the damaging side of fame, while focusing on her immense talent and creativity. Instead, we get a film that often veers a little too closely to character assassination while it spends large swathes of its runtime simply telling us again and again that Winehouse was an addict and an alcoholic, and her relationships with men are the defining parts of her story. It is reductive, and damaging to her legacy.
The film’s soundtrack is obviously killer for fans of the artist and the genres she moved in, but beyond that, Back to Black is a cold and heartless film that reduces Amy Winehouse’s story down to the tragedy, with none of the triumph. Her music and her work plays second fiddle to a hurtful portrayal of her addictions and relationships, and anyone with even the slightest bit of heart can say that Winehouse deserved a hell of a lot better than this. Stick to the 2015 documentary. Can we please start hiring directors who actually care about their subjects to direct these biopics, so that they may be more than a glorified big-screen Wikipedia entry. Thanks.

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