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'Back to Black' Review

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May 16, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. We begin near the end of the icon’s journey, only to flash back to where it all began. The icon has a strained relationship with their family, immediately giving them unresolved trauma. But they have a special talent and someone in their family (most likely a grandparent) acts as their motivational coach. They suddenly hit it big, but are blindsided by the pressures of fame and the need to conform. They fall in love with an outsider, which, coupled with the growing stress, leads them to drugs and alcohol. Everyone says they need help while the excuses keep piling up, eventually ending in a burnout that crowns the tabloids. After some soul-searching, they find themselves back at the top performing one of their iconic songs. It ends back where we started, with the untimely death being revealed during the postscript, along with all their other achievements.

It would be damn near impossible for you to guess what single movie I was describing. Even if you narrowed it down to just the past five years, you’d still have to decide between Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody, Respect, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, and Bob Marley: One Love. The musician biopic subgenre has become such a cliché at this point that there’s even a sub-subgenre for parodies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. But even those are starting to feel a little stale, as the jokes don’t have the same punch when you can see them coming from a mile away.

Writer Matt Greenhalgh would have only needed to add a few jokes to his Back to Black script to make it into one of those parodies. All the other tropes are already there, so why not make this a comedy? It’s surely not a compelling drama, nor a “definitive” retelling of Amy Winehouse’s life. Everything has been scrubbed with disinfectant several times over, leaving behind a product so basic that you’d barely get the impression that this person was special at all.

The one laughable thing is Greenhalgh’s treatment of Winehouse, with his pen always pushing her further down the gutter. Between the alcohol, the ever-growing lineup of drugs, and discussions of self-harm, there’s nothing that Amy isn’t doing to destroy herself. Greenhalgh’s claim that all this self-destruction was predominantly spurred by Amy’s inability to have a child is both borderline insulting and too neat. There’s also the unintentional running joke of Amy saying that she needs to stay true to herself while also perfectly following the rags-to-riches template.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has previously shown an interest in musicians, helming the 2009 John Lennon origin story Nowhere Boy. The strategy doesn’t seem to have changed in the decade-plus since, with the beats being produced in a forgettably competent manner. The staging of Winehouse’s performances is quite nice, with star Marisa Abela doing a fine impression both physically and vocally. Less than stellar is Jack O'Connell as her sleazy on-again, off-again husband, and the relative sidelining of Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville.

Getting anything out of Back to Black will be a tall order for any viewer, regardless of your familiarity with Winehouse’s life and music. There’s also the unavoidable presence of the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary Amy, which covers more material with more depth in just as much time. But as long as Winehouse's songs see a bump on Spotify, then the producers will be happy. And we all know that’s what really matters in this landscape.

'Back to Black' Review

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