top of page


Love is a losing game: Amy Winehouse (Marisa Abela) performs while husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell) looks on


Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Written by Matt Greenhalgh


THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of talent but there is a lack of courage in this film. A lack of courage in its convictions.

While aiming to tell a story beyond the cheap headlines, one that leans at least as much personal as professional, director Sam Taylor-Johnson tends to shy away from the harder truths of both, leaving her story too betwixt and between for the story of an artist who did few things halfheartedly.

The music business is given a very light smack; the media a stronger one, but still more in the realms of a passing blow to what presumably is meant to be seen as the real villain of the piece in the short and turbulent life of Amy Winehouse. The grand love affair shows potential – principally because of the sparks of connection and chemistry which Marisa Abela (Winehouse) and Jack O’Connell (Blake Fielder-Civil) manage to add to a disappointing script – but we are mostly left to read in not just the passion but the reasons for the passion.

When it comes to the three tabloid-approved baddies – the drugs, the father, the boyfriend/husband – it is a curiously ambivalent approach.

The first is almost hurried through, as if to linger on it would be prurient, while still offering a few wobbly-screen “whoa, everything is distorted because she’s on drugs” nods to film conventions. The decision by the previously (relatively) straight arrow Winehouse to indulge beyond industrial quantities of alcohol is a decision portrayed as pivotal and maybe in reaction to one of Fielder-Civil’s rejections, but simultaneously quickly made and never thought of again.

Something similar happens to the even more lightly touched eating disorder, which may or may not have been an issue pre-fame, may or may not have been exacerbated by the media attention and/or label pressure, and seemingly here had little to no effect on her.

As for the two principal men in her life, they are semi-rehabilitated in this telling, especially her father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan), who is portrayed as benevolent and supportive rather than the usual assumptions of him as personally ambitious and intrusive. And Fielder-Civil has a bit more nuance than chancer, coat-rider and corruptor. But each is ultimately so narrowly sketched that judgement becomes a matter of preconceived opinion. Taken further, the supporting characters of friends, industry figures, musicians and hangers-on are little more than there to be wheeled on and off for reaction shots.

What then is the core of the film? This is, Taylor-Johnson has said, a love letter to Winehouse. Though which Winehouse is a question given Winehouse the lover is not really explained and Winehouse the potentially self-destructive talent even less so.

It’s not Winehouse the songwriter, though she declares late in the film that she couldn’t function without the outlet of writing. Setting aside that about half the songs we hear aren’t by her (and a number of those don’t feature her singing either) we see Winehouse writing one song – and that done wholly unconvincingly – while of the rest of the songs from the first album, Frank, there’s nada.

Surely then the writing or even the making of the second album, Back To Black, which Taylor-Johnson describes as “the framework for my film”, where “every song is a devotional outpouring of her love story”, would show her putting some of that love and life into the writing. We would watch artistic/personal development and risk-taking alongside her desire to bring her reality to her songs.

You know, the songs taken on by a young, mostly untested at this level, new producer who played a significant hand in arranging them. The songs that signalled a significant change from the jazz-inflected sound of her debut to a glossy reimagining of the busy rhythmic pop of the early ‘60s. The record that changed everything, right? Nup.

After a “hey, we’re in New York” montage that, except for the signature lowslung shorts and exposed bra, could have been used for a That Girl or Mary Tyler Moore-style sitcom opening, we get her singing one song. In an anonymous and for all we know empty studio.

The closest to properly explored is Winehouse the singer, and Abela, who does all her singing, is close enough in voice and phrasing, and closer still in commitment, to carry this load. Through her there is a feeling that singing brought joy, yes, but also that singing itself was consequential. More’s the pity this wasn’t explored.

You could put this to resisting the temptation to capture the ineffable on screen, except for the fact that this failing to commit is symptomatic of Back To Black itself, a film that is not terrible, but is not particularly good either – never courageous enough to be one or the other.


bottom of page