Back to Black: The Amy Winehouse film that polarised the critics

The Evening Standard and Daily Mail each allotted one star, while The Guardian praised its warmth


Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's BACK TO BLACK

The reviews are in for the new Amy Winehouse biopic, and they couldn’t be more polarising. While the Evening Standard and Daily Mail each allotted a damning single star, The Guardian’s four-star critique praised Back to Black as an “an urgent, warm, heartfelt dramatisation” and Variety called it a “forthright and compelling movie” that “digs into the drama of” Winehouse’s life.

Following Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Amy documentary, with its extensive archive footage, and the BBC’s Reclaiming Amy of 2021, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film – scripted by Matt Greenhalgh and starring Marisa Abela as Winehouse –intended to capture the star’s own perspective. The trailer’s release in February sparked a flurry of criticism over Abela’s version of one of the greatest jazz and soul voices of all time. But the singing did not turn out to be the overriding source of critics’ offence.

The Daily Mail slammed the film as “a perfume ad's idea of addiction and mental illness; soft-focussed and pretty.” They, and others, lamented the portrayal of Amy’s husband Blake Fielder-Civil, played by Jack O’Connell, as a Prince Charming figure who introduced Amy to 60s girl-group The Shangri-Las rather than the hard drugs that contributed to her tragic demise at 27.

“Anyone coming to this film without any prior knowledge of Amy’s story should assume she got into hard drugs of her own accord – even though the real life Fielder-Civil is on record as saying “I got Amy into heroin,” said reviewer Hamish MacBain in the Evening Standard.

The Independent’s Charlotte O’Sullivan agreed. “Fielder-Civil’s culpability in Winehouse’s addiction has been a contentious subject for years, despite his confirmation that he ‘put up a weak resistance’ when she asked to try heroin with him. In Back to Black, though, Blake…doesn’t introduce Amy to class-A drugs.” O’Sullivan also pointed out that the film’s portrayal of his introduction to The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack’ – which sparked the retro flavour of Winehouse’s hit second album – is what helped to launch her to stardom. “There’s something queasy-making about turning him into the wind beneath Amy’s wings. The guy’s a mix of Heathcliff, Sid Vicious and Mary bloody Poppins,” she said.

Taylor-Johnson has defended her decision to portray Fielder-Civil in this light, saying: “We had to understand why Amy fell in love with him, so it wasn’t about making a one-dimensional villain. We had to fall in love with him to understand why she wrote one of the greatest albums about their love…. it wasn’t my place to cast judgement on somebody who was obviously an addict, and on the two of them having this intense, albeit toxic, love affair.”

On the appearance of the lead actors, Abela’s look and mannerisms, from beehive to lip piercing, singing voice and stage presence, were praised as accurate reflections. However, reviewers observed how healthy they looked for two people addicted to hard drugs.

“The real Amy and Blake looked washed out and ill, in the way that only people who have done months of class As for breakfast, lunch and dinner do,” said MacBain. “Here, in his topless scenes, Jack O’Connell’s Fielder-Civil looks like he’s just stepped out of Barry’s Bootcamp rather than Pete Doherty’s (pre-cheese-years) basement.”

Amy’s father Mitch, too, was described as coming off better than he has in previous film depictions – a fact that some put down to this film’s authorisation by the Winehouse estate itself.

The Daily Telegraph said, “The film is bound to be dissected for the ways it ducks playing the blame game. While Asif Kapadia's 2015 documentary Amy pointed fingers at her father for (it implied) milking her career and not having her best interests at heart, here Eddie Marsan's Mitch comes off, at worst, as lovingly misguided in not agreeing to rehab sooner.”

The JC’s own reviewer, John Nathan, said that here Mitch is “little more than a figure of watchful concern, as opposed to the exploitative parent he felt he was portrayed…” He also said her boyfriend and eventual husband Fielder-Civil is shown as “likeable”. He added that “Taylor-Johnson’s portrait appears so determined to cause no offence it is as if it has self-censored itself into a sanitised version of Winehouse’s life.”

The film’s “worst” crime, according to MacBain, is that it fails to deliver on its promise to focus on and celebrate Winehouse's music. Reviewers pointed out that the song ‘Rehab’, which catapulted Winehouse to fame in 2006, was not even heard until the film’s final 20 minutes.

However, The Times said that it accomplished Taylor-Johnson’s goal of making a film that would encourage people to listen to her music. In his review, Ed Potton also said that Taylor-Johnson “should be applauded for avoiding a queasy obsession with Winehouse’s illness and early death”.

There were differing opinions, too, on the film’s ending. NME praised it as “impressively deft and delicate” and called Taylor-Johnson’s film “a welcome reminder of Winehouse’s plucky spirit – something that often gets lost when her life is reduced to a hackneyed tale of talent and tragedy.” Yet on the other hand, the final scene made MacBain “physically gasp in horror”.

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