Back to Black review: Don’t write off this Amy Winehouse film. It makes a bet that pays off

Sam Taylor-Johnson does a decent job of making a tight drama from a tragic yarn

Back to Black
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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cert: 15A
Starring: Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Jeff Tunke
Running Time: 2 hrs 2 mins

There is reason to fret about halfway through Sam Taylor-Johnson’s earthy study of Amy Winehouse’s too-brief career. Managerial wonks, distressed at her substance abuse, press her in a corner and urge her towards a spell in rehab. She’s not having it (“No, no, no!”). Her daddy backs her up. Everyone involved deserves credit for not cutting to a performance of the opening track from her second album. We’ll give it that, among other things.

Too many people who haven’t seen Back to Black have already decided this is a career-killing disaster. Blame some ropy trailers, the genre’s unhappy history and sincere concerns about the tastefulness of such a project. Back to Black certainly entertains a few of the cliches satirised in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Yes, before that rehab scene we do see her work out relationship concerns through spontaneous composition on a nearby guitar. But there is real grit to the performances and a fruitful desire to anatomise a relationship that brought so much grief.

Everyone who buys a ticket will probably already know the Winehouse story: a Jewish kid from Camden Town honed her skills belting out jazz classics before securing an unlikely deal with Simon Fuller’s 19 Management. (The “I ain’t no Spice Girl” line that generated derision in the trailer makes sense in that context.) Two hit albums followed.

The film is rooted largely in the singer’s north London manor. Taylor-Johnson, who examined the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, draws a gorgeous performance from Lesley Manville as the granny Winehouse idolised. Eddie Marsan negotiates the (shall we say) diplomatically written role of her father, Mitch, with some grace. A convincing whiff of lager and pool chalk is everywhere.


Back to Black places the body of its chips on the relationship between Winehouse (Marisa Abela) and Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), her sometime husband. The bet pays off. O’Connell gets across the sticky-carpet appeal without making anything particularly likable of that controversial character. Abela can’t equal Winehouse before the microphone, but, away from the stage, she manages to be simultaneously adorable and exasperating. Sure, you will learn more – and hear more of the original recordings – in Asif Kapadia’s great documentary Amy, but Taylor-Johnson does a decent job of making a tight drama from the same tragic yarn. A good deal better than that recent Bob Marley thing.

Back to Black is in cinemas from Friday, April 12th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist