top of page

Back to Black

StudioCanal UK, 2024


Sam Taylor-Johnson / Matt Greenhalgh

Reading Time:

7 minutes

Back to BlackFurry Friend (TDE0TSBWUMQST4H9)
00:00 / 07:53

📷 : Used with permission, Marina Esmeraldo

Back to Black


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows about drugs or with disorienting presentations


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects

Reba Chaisson


There’s usually not a lot to say about biopics. By the time we see the film, we are already familiar with the performer’s talents and body of work and know that sadly, he or she is going to die tragically at the end of the movie. We see this in the 2022 releases, Elvis and Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Such is the case with Back to Black, the story of vocalist extraordinaire, Amy Winehouse. So, when my husband and I arrived at Emagine Theater’s Screening Room this past Sunday to take in the movie, we had a pretty good idea what to expect. Along with about 49 other patrons, we settled into our seats with treats and drinks, expecting to get a peek inside the British singer’s private life between the time she was born and her death from alcoholism in July 2011. 

Very early in the movie, a 19-year-old Amy Winehouse is contacted by a producer about a recording contract. She immediately and unapologetically tells the caller that she is only interested in doing “real music” like that of Sarah Vaughan and Lauryn Hill. It is rare to hear a young person with such a strong sense of self. Amy is unafraid to emphatically declare to a White male producer that her music heroines are Black female jazz and R&B / soul / reggae artists. She also insists, rather than suggests, that she be given the space to do only that music. My husband and I were entranced from this moment in the film. It was refreshing to hear a young White person proclaim that Black cultural traditions have shaped her musical tastes and talents, and a joy to see her express this in such a defiant manner. 

Starring Marisa Abela (Industry, Rogue Agent) as Amy Winehouse, Back to Black portrays the singer-songwriter as being very close to her paternal grandmother, Nana, played in the film by Lesley Manville (The Crown, The Critic). A former jazz club singer and lover of Charlie Parker’s music, Nana was very affectionate with her high-spirited and defiantly authentic granddaughter. We observe this in a tender scene where an emotionally wounded Amy tells Nana that she and her boyfriend Blake have split up. Knowing how happy Amy was with Blake, Nana ceases styling what became the artist’s iconic hairdo. She sits down across from Amy, grabs her hand, and says with gentle eyes, “I’m sorry Amy; I know how much you cared for him.” 

Nana’s response sits in contrast to the glib retorts we often get from friends and family when we experience a breakup. “Good riddance,” “There’s plenty of fish in the pond,” or “Girl, you’ll find another one” are meant to keep us hopeful. But the time between the news and the response is when we and our broken hearts just need someone to listen, give us a hug, and acknowledge our pain. Nana’s grace and keen sense of her granddaughter’s needs help us see why Amy feels so close to her. 

Despite her talents and success, Amy insists she cares nothing about fame. She loves hard though, as evidenced by her on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend and cocaine addict Blake, played by Jack O’Connell (Rogue Heroes, Ferrari). Blake presents her with a gift of crack cocaine set in a jewelry box like earrings, despite knowing her disdain for narcotics. Instead of vehemently rejecting the gift like the old Amy would, the new Amy is flattered. Each time she and Blake break up, it seemingly devastates her and chips away at her once upbeat demeanor and inner strength. 

Shot in London, Back to Black is infused with Amy Winehouse’s music and fronted with the vocals of the actress who portrayed her, Marisa Abela, whose strong performance is deserving of an Oscar nod. Predictably, the film depicts Amy’s immense talents and heavy drinking, but it grabs us with narratives of her closeness to Nana, affinity for Blake, and her relationship with her father, Mitch, played by Eddie Marsan (Fair Play, Ray Donovan). Mitch displays much patience and indulges his daughter, who has him wrapped around her finger. Despite her problems with alcohol, he gives in to Amy’s pleas of “Daddy, I promise I’ll stop” and goes against her producer’s advice to commit her to rehab. 

While some of us might shake our heads about Mitch’s lack of action, common wisdom suggests that nothing will change the behaviors of people with addiction unless they make their own decisions to get help. We see this in the 2021 movie, The Good House, featuring Sigourney Weaver as Hildy Good, a successful realtor in a close-knit East Coast community who is addicted to wine. Despite the pleas of family and friends to get professional help, Hildy’s behavior doesn’t change until she makes the decision to get help on her own. And although Amy’s popular song indicates that she “said no” to rehab, the film shows it was she who asked her father to take her.

Films portraying famous people with addictions often characterize them as being close with caring families and loved ones. I wonder how this comports with the reality of most families though. Because they are viewed as untrustworthy, people with addictions who are neither wealthy nor famous are typically shrugged off, if not shunned, by their kin. The behaviors that often come with drug and alcohol addictions make it difficult to maintain close relationships with the person who is struggling. 

Compounding the strain of addiction is the cost of getting help for loved ones. Rehab facilities with their lush campuses, peaceful environments, and skilled therapists are not options for most people because they are unaffordable. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Like high-end restaurants with menus that don’t have prices, websites for quality rehab facilities don’t list the cost for their services. The families of people addicted to drugs and alcohol undoubtedly love and care for their struggling family members. But remaining close to them is a challenge when they cannot support themselves financially. It is less difficult when they can.

There’s a timeless adage that says, what happens to you either kills you or makes you stronger. I think we never know what people are going through, nor how people absorb what happens to them. Where some of us can move on from losses and hurtful experiences, others have a place inside of themselves where that pain thrives and eats away at their self-worth. The fact that it hasn’t killed them, doesn’t mean it is making them stronger. In short, we don’t know how people process their pain. The sh** isn’t simple; it’s complex. Indeed, in addition to her turbulent relationship with Blake, Amy experiences loss as well as insults hurled at her by executives, producers, and even audience members at her performances. Based on the film, Amy Winehouse’s life was more akin to Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” than Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.”

The thing about biopics is we never know what part of the story is truth and in what areas the filmmakers took dramatic license. What is indeed factual is that you can’t hear Amy’s voice and not appreciate its power – it stirs something inside of you. Another truth is Back to Black’s depiction of Amy Winehouse as someone who, like Whitney Houston as depicted in her biopic, absorbed pain in a way that ultimately leads to her tragic death.

Sign-up for new reviews, exclusives, deep dives, and more

Thanks for joining us!

bottom of page