From the time the death of British singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) was announced, there was talk of a film about her, such was the media frenzy she stirred in the early 21st century. Now the film has finally hit the screens and… well, Amy deserved a better production than this “Back to Black.” Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Matt Greenhalgh, the film suffers from the same flaws that plague nine out of ten modern biopics: it falls into genre clichés and is very, very superficial.

The film focuses on the period of Amy’s meteoric rise (played by Marisa Abela), from the recording of her first album, Frank, which was critically acclaimed but not very successful on the radio, to her second, Back to Black, which became an international phenomenon. In the meantime, we see the singer’s temperamental nature, her relationship with her grandmother Nan (Lesley Manville) and her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan), and her tumultuous romance with Blake (Jack O’Connell), who would become her husband. And, of course, the artist’s dive into drugs and alcoholism.


In the past, Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh gave us the good and charming “Nowhere Boy” (2009), which focused on John Lennon’s youth. And it’s clear from interviews with those involved in this production that Amy Winehouse’s story mattered to them. But one cannot ignore or forgive all the problems with “Back to Black” – and the film has many. To start with, it is an overly sanitized biopic.

I’m not the greatest expert on Amy’s life and career, but even I know that her relationships with her father and her husband greatly influenced her addiction and subsequent decline. In “Back to Black,” her father is portrayed as a nice guy always concerned about his daughter – very different from the portrayal in the Oscar-winning documentary “Amy” (2015). And although the film does show that Blake introduced Amy to drugs, he is portrayed as a sensitive guy who even tries to help the singer and acknowledges the toxic nature of their relationship.

Everything is superficial: at one point, we see a scene of Blake walking down the street with a scratched face. Who caused the fight, him or Amy? The film doesn’t explain. Later, he is arrested by the police, and the explanation for this passes by quickly. Bulimia, a serious problem the artist faced, is suggested in one scene, mentioned in an expository dialogue in another, and then never appears again. In fact, with so many superficialities, the film ends up having the opposite effect, blaming Amy herself above all for her addiction and self-destruction. Her and, obviously, the paparazzi, the anonymous masses who would not leave the singer alone. But it’s easy to blame them, isn’t it?

If the viewer wants to get an idea of the artist’s creative process, “Back to Black” also falls short. We are informed that she loves jazz and see her composing a song, and that’s it. To be clear, trying to “explain” a person by appealing to psychologisms or easy considerations is not the answer either, no one here is asking for that. But when the script of the biographical film about a person does not advance beyond what can be read in a Wikipedia entry, then things get complicated.


What remains in the film are the adequate performances of the actors, who do what is asked of them by the material – Abela proves to be a good imitator of Amy’s mannerisms and does well singing with her voice in the film, adding a layer to her portrayal of the singer. It is a brave performance, no doubt, but also one that sometimes seems a mere contrivance – especially at the beginning of the film, where she seems to be forcing the accent a bit.

Fans will surely also enjoy some moments where Amy’s main songs are performed in shows or appear within the narrative. But that is little. It’s as if those involved in “Back to Black” missed the opportunity to approach the story in a truly interesting way from a dramatic and thematic point of view.

Today, more than ten years after her death, how could the media circus that formed around Amy Winehouse, and that contributed to her death, be addressed? And her own role in this process? After all, she undoubtedly had a self-destructive component within her. Almost none of these themes appear in the film, which settles for portraying its subject in a romanticized way, another “sensitive and tormented artist” portrait that we see in cinema and media, which is beautiful and romantic for everyone except the artist in question.

Today, biopics have become part of cinema’s “menu” and will not disappear because many people like to consume them. However, even in this scenario, “Back to Black” stands out as a special biopic: It is so poorly conceived that it ends up being practically a disservice to its subject.