Review: In Back to Black, Newcomer Marisa Abela Is the Central Force of a Less-Than-Compelling Biopic

Sometimes, it comes down to a performance. In the case of the new Amy Winehouse docudrama Back To Black, from director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Gray, Nowhere Boy), that performance belongs to Marisa Abela (who had a small role as Teen Talk Barbie in Barbie), playing the supremely talented yet troubled songstress. The film covers Winehouse’s rise to fame in the UK with the release of her first album Frank, which didn’t initially even get a U.S. release. She frequently wrote songs about her own life, often focusing on busted romances. She was surrounded by a supportive family, including her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville) and father Mitch (Eddie Marsan), who has often been looked at as a source of trouble in Winehouse’s life.

Written by Matt Greenhalgh (Control, Nowhere Boy), Back To Black does a decent job showing how the sensitive but tough Winehouse combined subject matter and musical arrangements from girl groups of the 1960s with a very modern approach to writing lyrics, and ended up with the album that gives the film its title. The film centers on how Winehouse crafted her songs by pulling her emotions into the music, especially when she was going through an on-again/off-again relationship with boyfriend Blake (Jack O’Connell), who was always portrayed as a corrupting force in her life. This film paints him more as unwilling to take a backseat to her music and breaking things off with Amy in order to lead a simpler life.

Much like the 2015 documentary Amy, Back To Black doesn’t shy away from Winehouse’s drug and alcohol use, her tendency to push back whenever she felt pressured into making music she was not interested in, and being hounded by the paparazzi every time she dared to step out of her house. And while the filmmaker had complete access to Winehouse’s musical output, most of what we hear sung is Abela, who does a fairly remarkable job approximating the singer’s style and vocal inflections (the re-recordings were done with Winehouse’s original band). One can’t undervalue the significance of Abela's alarmingly strong performance here. There are moments when she simply becomes Winehouse in the best and worst of her behaviors. It’s more than just the makeup and the towering hair—it’s the attitude, the strange blend of confidence and self-doubt, and her tendency to sabotage her greatest achievements.

The layered Back To Black is anything but a sob story about yet another dead rock star who couldn’t adjust to instant fame; it’s a cautionary tale told alongside a celebration of some of the greatest music in the last 25 years. There are whole sections of the film that step away from the music to concentrate on her personal life. Perhaps it takes things a little too easy on the men in her life, like her father and Blake, but for better or worse, she leaned on men too often to make decisions for her, whether she did so willingly or not. The film certainly doesn’t set her up as a role model, but it doesn’t profile her as a walking disaster either. Without a doubt, the documentary is a better examination of her life and work, but especially compared to the other recent music biopic, Bob Marley: One Love, this is a much improved effort about someone whose talents had barely been explored before their untimely death.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.