Is Making an Amy Winehouse Biopic a Losing Game?

Culture

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Amy Winehouse never wanted to write about love, but “I went and did that anyway,” she told BBC One talk show host Jonathan Ross, following the release of her debut album, Frank, in 2004. At the time, the admission came across as a lighthearted setup for Ross’s one-liner about the downside of dating a confessional singer-songwriter. Twenty years later, re-created for the new biopic, Back to Black, the scene feels eerily current. But it also speaks to Winehouse’s inherent contradictions and why it’s so damn difficult to capture her essence in a standard feature-length film. She was only here for 27 years, but Winehouse’s life contained multitudes, and then some.

It makes sense, then, why Back to Black director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh would decide to zero in on one particularly dynamic period, namely, the years following the release of Frank, when Winehouse funneled her despair over the death of her beloved grandmother and breakup with Blake Fielder-Civil into the neo-jazz-soul masterpiece that shares a name with the film and made her an international star.

“When I was approached by Alison Owen, our producer, I said yes, before even processing the responsibility of a movie like this,” says Taylor-Johnson, who began her career as a fine-art photographer associated with the Young British Artists—a loose collective linked by their non-establishment origins and fondness for partying. “I lived in London around the same time [Winehouse] did, and it was like a sliding door—I would always have just arrived somewhere she’d just left. It felt like I had this sense of a connection and an understanding of so much around her. And I felt like I knew immediately how to tell the story.”

l to r actor marisa abela and director sam taylor johnson on the set of back to black, a focus features release credit  courtesy of dean rogersfocus features

Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Sam Taylor-Johnson (right) directs Marisa Abela (left), who portrays Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.

While researching, Taylor-Johnson came to see the singer’s love for Fielder-Civil as “a north star.” When she met with Amy’s mom, Janice, she asked for her opinion on Fielder-Civil. “She told me, ‘I didn’t like Blake, but I didn’t not like him either.’ She just felt truly grateful that Amy had experienced a love as powerful as that in her lifetime. All of our judgments as to whether that love should or shouldn’t have happened felt irrelevant to the story.”

Indeed, from a storytelling perspective, it’s hard not to notice that once the post-ladette, proto-indie sleaze of Winehouse’s story is stripped away, you’re left with a classic romantic tragedy, complete with star-crossed love, three bottles of poison, and a paparazzi chorus. That said, it’s also easy to see how centering a Winehouse biopic around her intoxicating (and highly toxic) relationship with the bloke who introduced her to heroin might appear to fans like a flattening of her brash, heart-achingly authentic soul. Or at the very least, a Bechdel Test fail.

amy winehouse performs for grammy's via video link

Peter Macdiarmid//Getty Images

Winehouse performs at the Grammys in 2008.

To be fair, the film arrives at a particularly strange time. Culturally, society has been reckoning with the reams of ick female celebrities dealt with in the aughts. (And they’re still dealing with them—as we’ve seen from every tired take on Taylor Swift’s dating life.) Back then, many fans saw Winehouse as a self-possessed antidote to the boy-crazy bimbo-fied female archetypes dominating the mainstream, not a hopeless romantic desperate to become a wife and mum. To see her life story condensed in such a way feels, to some, like a grotesque insult.

Who could blame them? In between headlines warning of an impending apocalypse, women are being fed TikToks of happy tradwives and pretty, crying thirtysomethings bemoaning the lack of men to date who aren’t trash, ear-wormy tongue-in-cheek songs about cute pathetic men are climbing the charts, and hilarious scenes from a chronically online It girl power lunch are dominating our feeds. Everyone is tired, and Winehouse’s story has no redemption arc. You get the sense that her fans are stuck in the anger stage of grief, and might stay there, possibly forever.

While the response to Back to Black has been heated, and somewhat of a pile-on, most critics agree that the film’s star, newcomer Marisa Abela, gives an ambitious, standout performance. The 27-year-old, who previously appeared in Industry and had a bit part as Teen Talk Barbie in last summer’s blockbuster, trained with a vocal coach for two hours a day for four months to learn Amy’s singing style, and there are moments where she does disappear into the role.

Unlike some of the film’s critics, Abela saw Winehouse’s apparent desire to become a mother as an attempt to create something that was hers and hers alone. “A lot of things had been taken away from her and entered into the public domain—even the thing that was most personal, her art. Of course she put it out there for people to enjoy, but it got so huge that it wasn’t really hers anymore.”

marisa abela stars as amy winehouse in director sam taylor johnson's back to black, a focus features release credit  courtesy of dean rogersfocus features

Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.

While such a desire feels antithetical to Winehouse’s persona as a tottering hot mess, struggling with addiction, cutting, and bulimia, these character flaws could also be seen as the desperate attempts of a depressed person using self-harm to reclaim control over her life. After all, no one could force her to perform if she was passed out.

Maybe her greatest legacy lies within the artists she inspired, who admired her talent, absorbed her cautionary tale, and offered her grace. In 2016, Adele honored Winehouse during a concert in Boston. “Because of her, I picked up a guitar, and because of her, I wrote my own songs,” reported MTV. “The songs I got signed on were the songs that I wrote completely on my own—if it wasn’t for her, that wouldn’t have happened. I owe 90 percent of my career to her.”

Lana Del Rey, whose “gangster Nancy Sinatra” persona echoed Winehouse’s fusion of jazz and hip-hop, told Mojo in 2021 that she was living in “a shitty flat with no heat” in London in 2010. “But they told me it was on Camden Road near where Amy Winehouse used to play at the Roundhouse, and I loved Amy.” A year later, she learned of Amy’s death on the same day she received her first review of “Video Games.” “I had 10 seconds of the most elated feeling, and then the news everywhere, on all of the televisions, was that Amy had died.”

amy winehouse

Andy Willsher//Getty Images

Musicians like Lana Del Rey and Adele have spoken about being deeply influenced by Amy Winehouse.

The only villains Taylor-Johnson sees in the film are addiction and paparazzi, and she doesn’t see the point in apportioning blame on individuals. “You can’t lay judgment when you’re dealing with addiction as a disease,” she says. “And in terms of paparazzi, it is just so toxic.”

Considering the near-panic that erupted among certain corners of Winehouse’s fanbase upon the release of the film’s first images and trailers, the response hasn’t been fully unexpected. It also quite possibly gave Abela a perspective into the relentless scrutiny Winehouse faced as her star was rising.

“It’s an incredibly isolating thing, this hatred,” Abela says. “I think you just sort of have to get on and get through. Luckily, I had a job at hand, and we were working, so that was the important thing. I don’t love to take positives from every negative. I think sometimes lessons can be learned, but I also think that people should lead with kindness, or at least wait to see something before they comment. I think once people see the film, the temptation is to lean to a place of empathy for people who put themselves out there rather than feel a right to criticize and tear things apart.”

When the film does eventually fade to black, white text appears, explaining how following a long period of sobriety, Amy died of alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. As the credits roll, we see Abela performing a simultaneously devastating and uplifting rendition of “Tears Dry on Their Own.” No one could reanimate Winehouse’s inimitable voice, the way the words would tumble from her lips and skip across the bouncy drums and horns, the raw mix of funereal drama and crude humor. But the scene is a comforting reminder that while we may never understand Winehouse or get over her death, she left us with a perfect gift—a set of songs that will never not encapsulate the sublime agony of being alive.

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