A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Just eight years elapsed between the release of Amy Winehouse’s first music and her death from alcohol poisoning in 2011, a timeline played out as much in the pages of the tabloid press as it was via critical and commercial acclaim for her talent.


Consequently, the makers of Back to Black have a comparatively concise narrative to work with, the events of which will already be hugely familiar to its intended audience.

The singer’s tenure in the spotlight was never short on drama, and without belittling the brilliance of her songs it’s by no means cynical to suggest Winehouse’s celebrity status skyrocketed at a faster pace due to headline-grabbing behaviour in her private life.

To call Amy a troubled soul is no exaggeration, but Back to Black rarely offers more than snapshots of her malaise.

Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh is an old hand at brief-span biopics of music figures, having previously scripted films about pre-fame John Lennon (Nowhere Boy, also directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson) and Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis (Control).

More like this

Both were insightful portraits of individuals destined to become icons; here, though, he struggles to get under Amy’s skin.

It’s a pity, because Marisa Abela does an extraordinary job of inhabiting that skin, her portrayal of Amy at turns funny, headstrong, vulnerable and tragic.

From the jazz-fan teenager singing Tony Bennett songs at family parties, to facing off against a music biz trying to mould her into a pure pop star ("I ain’t no f**king Spice Girl!"), to losing control as her love life implodes, the actress perfectly captures Winehouse’s charisma.

Parallels can especially be drawn between Nowhere Boy and Black to Black, in that both are driven more by their subjects' personal relationships than music.

The former centred on the elder women in Lennon’s teenage world (his mother Julia and aunt Mimi), and members of Winehouse’s immediate family are a constant presence here.

Yet, while cab-driving dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and one-time jazz chanteuse grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville) act as intermittent sounding boards and dispensers of wisdom, it’s Amy’s obsessive attraction to bad-boy beau Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) that dominates.

As if to underline his reputation as a wrong 'un, Amy meets her future husband in a bar (notorious Camden watering hole The Good Mixer), where he serenades her by singing along to that evergreen ode to unruly influences, The Shangri-Las' 1960s hit Leader of the Pack, on the jukebox.

Read more:

It’s the first of many a rendezvous as the Winehouse star ascends, each awash with drink or drugs (and often punctuated by visits to a tattoo parlour, clichéd shorthand to rival the use of the Shangri-Las song).

However, the flashpoints that continually tear the love birds apart take up relatively minimal screen time, and with little or no dissection; an oversight, considering they spawned the bulk of Back to Black, the album.

The actual making of the record is given short shrift, too (influential producer Mark Ronson is nowhere to be seen), although the music itself provides pleasing crescendos, not least when we first hear the opening piano chords to the album’s title track after one particularly heart-wrenching break-up.

Arbela delivers impressive approximations of Winehouse’s singing voice in a series of well-staged sequences, be it early gigs in front of friends in North London pubs, commanding the pyramid stage at Glastonbury, or a heartbreaking rendition of Love Is a Losing Game during a chance meeting with musicians at Soho’s famed Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.

Taylor-Johnson’s presentations of the songs are rich in detail and gorgeously atmospheric, but away from the microphone Winehouse remains an enigma, a torch singer upon whom neither director nor writer shine any substantial additional light.

Back to Back will land in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on Friday 12th April 2024.


Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.