Critics Have Mixed Feelings About Back To Black, But They Can’t Stop Talking About The ‘Remarkable’ Portrayal Of Amy Winehouse

 Marisa Abela singing during a concert as Amy Winehouse in Back To Black.
Marisa Abela singing during a concert as Amy Winehouse in Back To Black.
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Amy Winehouse became one of the biggest names in music in the early 2000s, standing out with both her signature look and vocal stylings. Filmmakers have been wanting to tell her story ever since she died tragically in 2011 at the age of 27, and finally such a project is about to hit the big screen with Back to Black. Critics have been able to screen the upcoming biopic ahead of its release to U.S. theaters on May 17, and they are celebrating the portrayal of the late singer, despite some issues with the script.

Back to Black is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, who also helmed the biopic Nowhere Boy about John Lennon. Marisa Abela portrays Amy Winehouse — singing as her too — and the trailer looks both uplifting and heartbreaking as we dive into the singer’s tragically short life. Let’s see what critics are saying, starting with CinemaBlend's review of Back to Black. Sarah El-Mahmoud says while it's  incredible to watch Abela transform into the singer, this movie doesn’t give the legendary subject enough dimension. She gives it 2.5 out of 5 stars, writing:

Amy Winehouse’s addiction is what remains center stage in Back To Black, and while there is an importance to not glamorize her life, there’s a missing warmth to the singer that leaves the audience high and dry. There’s never really a defining moment that brings the sort of intimacy and depth that this biopic needs to help one think of Winehouse as a person rather than a fallen star on the cover of some of the greatest albums of the 2000s. Far too much of the film feels like it's judging her from the outside rather than taking us inside her mind.

James Mottram of GamesRadar rates it 3 out of 5 stars, calling the biopic confident but clunky as it pulls its punches in an attempt to celebrate Winehouse’s music. Mottram writes:

The film doesn’t land the same emotional impact as Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary Amy. Instead, it works best as a love story between the singer and Fielder-Civil – their tumultuous time together inspiring songs like Back to Black itself. Knitting it all together is a terrific turn from Abela, who not only looks the part (tattoos, beehive hairdo, etc.) but gives a remarkable vocal performance, sounding uncannily like the singer on record.

Hayley Campbell of Empire agrees on the effort from Marisa Abela, but points out that Back to Black cherry-picks the facts, telling us less than we knew coming into the movie. Campbell rates the movie 2 out of 5 stars, saying:

An incredibly bold and admirable move, then, for relative newcomer Marisa Abela to take on what might be the most scrutinised performance of her lifetime. And she is great: Abela can sing, her voice is recognisably the gobby and vibrant Amy, who spoke in interviews without a filter, and the alcohol shakes in the cold light of the corner shop ring true. … It’s unfortunate, however, that she is let down by a weak script that tells us even less than we already know.

Owen Gleiberman of Variety addresses the backlash that Marisa Abela has faced since the release of the trailer — something that Amy Winehouse’s father Mitch also defended the actress from — saying Abela nails the role. Gleiberman continues:

At its best, Back to Black, the forthright and compelling movie that’s been made of Winehouse’s life, takes that light/dark balance and digs into the drama of it, making it sing. The film’s snaky on-and-off power begins with the British actor Marisa Abela, whose lead performance nails Amy Winehouse in every look, mood, utterance, and musical expression. Ever since the trailers and clips from this movie dropped several months ago, there has been a pile-on of Internet sniping about the perceived wrongness of the casting. So let me say for the record: That’s just nuts.

Leslie Felperin of THR says Back to Black largely succeeds in painting Amy Winehouse as a flawed and fallible heroine, and the same adjectives can be used to describe the movie itself. It’s still quite affecting, Felperin says, thanks to its lead actress. The critic continues:

Much of the credit should go to its star Marisa Abela, best known for her work on HBO’s Industry, who manages to project Winehouse’s distinctive blend of fragility, intelligence and cornered-wildcat self-destructiveness. Sexuality explodes off her, like that iconic beehive of hair, a heavy tonsorial crown full of want and need, cockiness and insecurity in equal measure. In strictly acting terms, it’s a barnstormer of a performance. Musically, Abela is fractionally less persuasive.

William Bibbiani of The Wrap says Back to Black lacks passion in its exposition and doesn’t have anything to say about the events that unfold in Amy Winehouse’s life. It’s not just mediocrity, Bibbiani writes, “It’s mediocre mediocrity.” In the critic’s words:

This film has so much material to draw from. How is there so little to be said about the way her agent, her label, her father, and her husband either overlooked, enabled and/or exploited her substance abuse? The film spends more energy assuring us that Winehouse made her own choices, and that the people in her life who are still alive don’t deserve to be judged harshly, which can’t help but seem a little convenient. … Instead, we get a generic sightseeing tour of Amy Winehouse’s life, showing us basically what happened while offering no insight and little style. Back to Black cheated itself, and you know… that’s no good.

While many critics seem impressed by the portrayal of the late musician, they also take issue with how little the movie digs into Amy Winehouse’s struggles and the roles that the people around her played in her eventual death. That’s also reflected in the Rotten Tomatoes score, which stands at 50% from 18 critics’ reactions so far.

If you want to check out Marisa Abela’s performance in Back to Black, you can do so starting Friday, May 17, and be sure to take a look at our 2024 movie release calendar to see what else is coming soon.