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Paul Asay

Movie Review

The meeting with Island Records did not go well.

Frank, Amy Winehouse’s first album, had sold decently, but not spectacularly. A tour through the United States was out of the question. As for the European tour, Amy would need to tinker with her stage presence. Oh, and just when could Island expect some new songs for the follow-up?

Amy storms out. “I need to live my songs,” she says. “So that’s what I’m gonna do.”

First stop: a nearby bar, where she meets a charismatic drifter. They talk. Flirt. He smiles when he learns she’s the Amy Winehouse. She appreciates his own love for old music. They commiserate over their penchant for self-sabotage. Perhaps around the time he introduces her to The Shangri-Las via the jukebox—a 1960s girl group known for their towering hairdos and melo-tragic songs—Amy knew this fella, this Blake Fielder-Civil, was the guy for her.

If only Blake’s girlfriend hadn’t pulled him away.

Their separation would not last. Amy and Blake were drawn to each other—not so much like a moth to a flame, but a deer to a train. Amy’s second album, Back to Black, would be pulled from the wreckage.

Amy herself? Blake? Perhaps—only to crash again. And again.

Positive Elements

If nothing else, the Amy Winehouse we meet in Back to Black was very much her own person. If she was going to succeed in music, it was going to be on her own terms, using her own music. She tells a producer that she’ll never be one of the Spice Girls (a popular, if highly contrived, girl band from the late 1990s), and she says that her idea of “girl power” could be best illustrated by towering singers from the past, such as jazz great Sarah Vaughn. Amy was, in her own way, quite old fashioned.

And that sense of traditionalism (according to the movie) extends to her sense of family.

When we first meet Amy—a vivacious young teen—she practically begs her father to come inside and spend a little time with Amy’s mother. “Come in for five minutes,” she says. “Say hi to Mom.” Later, we see her own desire to be a wife and a mother—and her willingness to backburner her career to do just that. Even when Amy’s at her most self-destructive, she finds the time to show a bit of kindness to a young girl she meets in a store.

‘Course, Amy’s strong will comes with that self-destructive flip side. And a lot of folks in her orbit either encourage those tendencies or, at the very least, do little to stop them. But we do meet some exceptions.

Cynthia, Amy’s much-adored aunt, serves as a rare anchor in Amy’s life before Cynthia’s untimely death. (Later, Amy even tells someone that Cynthia might’ve “knocked my block off by now if she knew I was [a drug addict].”) Her first manager, Nick Shymansky, desperately tries to get her to get some help for those addictions—though, at the time, without success.

Amy does eventually seek help, by the way. The movie tells us that she asked to go to rehab and stayed drug-and-alcohol-free for some time.

It’s worth noting that while the real Amy Winehouse successfully kicked her drug habit for years, according to some sources, her sobriety from alcohol could only be counted in weeks—and it was alcohol poisoning that ultimately claimed her life. As such, Back to Black’s main “positive element” might be that of a tragic cautionary tale.

Spiritual Elements

The Winehouse family was Jewish, and Amy wears a Star of David pendant for much of the film. We hear a Jewish folksong or two. Amy attends the Jewish funeral service of a relative, and she later visits that relative’s resting place.

Sexual Content

“I’m not a feminist,” Amy says. “I like boys too much.”

The boy that especially catches her eye? Blake Fielder-Civil. We see plenty of skin from the both of them following their wedding: They swim naked in a hotel pool, and we see Amy’s bare breasts and Blake’s backside. (Genitals are obscured, but barely.) They engage in plenty of pre- and post-coital hijinks, either kissing each other madly or lounging around in bed (apparently naked) languidly. Blake’s exposed rear end makes an additional appearance or two, And Amy gets a tattoo honoring Blake on her left breast, over her heart. (We see plenty of skin in the scene, but nothing that would slip into the realm of being explicit.)

Blake, as mentioned, already had a girlfriend, Becky, when he first met Amy. We see her jealously lurk in the background before Amy seduces Blake away. After a tumultuous several months, the two break up and Blake returns to Becky—while Amy ultimately returns to music. (The title song Back to Black explicitly unpacks Amy’s heartbreak over the failed relationship.) The two reunite, and one scene features their 2007 wedding.

Before Blake came on the scene, Amy had other relationships, too—sometimes concurrently, the movie hints. Her mother scolds the 19-year-old for hanging out with someone else’s boyfriend, while her own beau, Chris, is waiting for her in her room. When she sees him, Amy wants to have sex immediately. He tells her that they could, y’know, sometimes just talk—but she ultimately pulls him down on her bed before the camera exits.

Shortly thereafter, Amy sings her song “Stronger Than Me” at a club, wherein Amy discusses her dissatisfaction with her boyfriend. She says, “I just wanna grip your body over mine” and doesn’t care for the relationship to go deeper. The song questions the guy’s sexual preferences (“Are you gay?”). And Amy sings that she feels “like a lady and you my lady boy.” Chris, in the audience, expresses pity for whomever Amy was talking about—only realizing seconds later that she was writing about him. Chris storms away from the table, and Amy practically laughs him out the door.

Another anonymous lover leaves Amy’s apartment as she takes a bath (we see her from the shoulders up). Amy’s attire—both on stage and off—grows increasingly sparse as her career goes on, exposing midriff, leg and a lot of cleavage. (Audiences see the lower part of Amy’s breasts in one scene, as well.) Amy sports a prominent tattoo of a topless woman on one of her arms. Onstage, she jokes that it took three men to help her get into her tight dress—but she’ll only need one man (Blake) to get her out of it. Blake wanders about in his underwear.

[Spoiler Warning] Blake ultimately asks Amy for a divorce while serving a prison sentence. Not long after, a member of the paparazzi asks Amy how she feels about Blake fathering a child with someone else.

Violent Content

Amy sees her relationship with Blake as an epic romance. “He saved me, all right?” she says. “From death by boredom.” But it’s hard to reconcile that “romance” with the relationship’s violence and abuse.

We see the first signs of what’s to come when Blake walks out on one of Amy’s club performances—after which Amy slugs her beau. Much later, we see Amy running through the streets of London—apparently terrified of Blake—as Blake comes and looks for her, his face covered in scratches (inflicted, naturally, by Amy). We hear plenty of references to their violent tempers.

Paparazzi routinely pester Amy and (when he’s in the picture) Blake, which leads to some jostling and physical confrontations.

Blake’s violent tendencies extend beyond his small family, though. The film chronicles his arrest for assaulting a bar owner (and, subsequently, trying to cover it up).

Crude or Profane Language

Nearly 70 uses of the f-word, seven of the s-word and one use of the c-word. We hear plenty of other profanities as well, including British-centric crudities such as “b-llocks” and “bloody,” along with “h—,” “d–k,” “p-ss” and “f-gs.” God’s name is misused three times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Of all the problems found in Back to Black, the content found under this heading is perhaps most significant. Amy Winehouse’s real-life issues with drugs and alcohol are well documented, and the film dramatizes those issues with salacious abandon.

Amy’s burgeoning musical career coincides with a rise in her drinking, it would seem. She’s rarely on stage without a large glass of something alcoholic (often beer in the movie’s early stages). She tells her audience at one point that real ladies don’t sip: They drink with gusto. Her favorite drink is a near-lethal mixture of vodka, Southern Comfort and a few other types of alcohol.

But early in her career, Amy would say that she draws the line there. Or, at least, mostly. When her father, Mitch, finds marijuana in her flat and says, “I thought you don’t do drugs,” Amy protests. “I don’t! It’s weed!”

“It’s drugs!” Mitch (rightfully) tells her.

When Amy starts hanging out with Blake, she quickly discovers that he uses cocaine. When Blake offers her some, she says, “No. Not for me. Drugs are for mugs.” And it seems as though she holds that (admittedly blurry) line during the early stages of their relationship.

But eventually (and the movie isn’t clear on when it begins), Amy falls into heavy drug use with Blake: cocaine, heroin—you name it. We often see her intoxicated or stoned or both. Paparazzi hound her after she buys booze at a corner store. During a concert, it seems as though she has little idea where she is or what she’s doing; concerned band members and security guards steer her to safety as she scurries around on her stiletto heels.

Amy sometimes passes out from her alcohol and drug use (though the film suggests an underlying health condition may also be at fault). Her manager, Nick, finds her mostly unconscious on the floor. He also confronts Amy and her father, Mitch, about her abuse spiral (which, the movie suggests, inspired her hit song “Rehab”). He begs both of them to seek help for Amy; Amy insists that she’d rather work through her issues as she always has—through her music—and her father backs her up.

Meanwhile, Blake continues his own drug abuse apace; his closest friend seems to be his dealer as well. After Blake and Amy break up, the dealer encourages Blake to try to get back together with her—in part so that he can pay off his drug debts.

Ultimately, police break into Blake and Amy’s love nest (to arrest Blake on assault charges). When one asks if there’s any drugs in the hotel room, Blake simply surmises that he and Amy used them all by now. Nevertheless, he’s sent to prison. And when Amy comes to visit him months later, Blake tells her that he’s now “practically clean except for weed,” and that has given him some more clarity on their dysfunctional relationship.

“We’re drug addicts, Amy,” he tells her—and he asks for a divorce to free them both from their cycle of codependency. Shortly thereafter, Amy also comes to grips with her own need to seek help, and she asks her father to check her into rehab.

Characters smoke cigarettes. (One smoker ultimately suffers and dies from lung cancer.)

Other Negative Elements

Amy suffers from bulimia, and we hear her vomit in a bathroom. (We hear people remark about how alarmingly skinny she is.) After she passes out from alcohol and drug use, Amy wakes up on her apartment floor, a small puddle of what might be vomit by her mouth.


Back to Black can be summed up in two two-word sentences: Her voice. Her choices.

We cannot question Amy Winehouse’s talent. While Marisa Abela does a pretty effective job of mimicking the real Amy Winehouse’s voice, no one had the chops of the original. Her core instrument was a thing of God-given beauty and power. Her music—which she primarily wrote herself—co-opted jazz, reggae and classic soul and shaped it into something utterly unique; an homage to music decades old and yet, something ever-so-new.

The tattoos? The beehive hairdo? Mere sprinkles on Winehouse’s musical cupcake. And you get the feeling that she’d be a musical power to be reckoned with for decades …

If it hadn’t been for her choices.

“I don’t do anything I don’t want to do,” Amy tells Blake—and, by extension, us.

And that much is true. Blame Blake for introducing Amy Winehouse to hard drugs, such as heroin. Blame father Mitch for ignoring the singer’s very obvious issues. Blame the paparazzi. Blame the music industry. There’s plenty of blame to go around regarding Amy’s descent into substance abuse and, ultimately, her death at age 27.

But ultimately, the real blame lies at Amy’s feet. As it lies with us all.

So who are we to blame for Back to Black?

We could certainly blame Winehouse’s own biography—one so troubled that much of the content is, by definition, inescapable. We could blame much of the moviegoing public, for whom all that tawdry, tragic content is a feature, not a bug. We could blame the industry itself.

But ultimately, the storytellers themselves decide what story to tell—and how to tell it. These storytellers decided to wade into the sensationalistic, ever-so-sordid details of Amy Winehouse’s life, even as they condemn the paparazzi for wading into those same sensationalistic, sordid waters. The movie spends a lot of time guessing what the singer did and why—perhaps blurring the reality it tries to unveil.

At one point, Amy tells Blake about her curious relationship with the constantly hounding paparazzi: They hover around her like flies, just waiting for her to stumble (literally or metaphorically). They haunt her every step, waiting for photographic confirmation that she’s a disaster. Amy says she obligingly gives them that disaster—and so they earn their paycheck for another week. They’re able to put food on the table for their own families.

Back to Black is, on one level, a sympathetic portrait of one of the towering talents of our time. But on another, it’s not so different from those paparazzi. It, too, unpacks the Amy Winehouse tragedy for a hungry public. It exploits the singer’s problems and, thus, earns paychecks for its hundreds of employees.

Amy knew the game. And so do we.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.