The media exploited Amy Winehouse’s life. A new biopic looks set to do the same with her death | Music
lIt’s only been a week since shooting for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black began in London, but the backlash is already fierce and fast. Over the weekend, photos of Marisa Abela and Eddie Marsan in the role of Amy and her father, Mitch Winehouse, surfaced on Twitter. The reaction was one of pure vitriol, with one particularly viral tweet describing the images of Abela, looking cartoonishly distraught in a Halloween costume-esque take on Winehouse’s signature beehive, as “damn repulsive”: 34,000 likes and 3,500 quote tweets seemed to agree with the sentiment.
It’s hard to judge a movie before even one frame has been officially released, but it’s understandable that the set shots struck a chord. In recent years, Winehouse’s troubled life and entirely avoidable death have become emblematic of the ways the entertainment and media industries fail young stars. Winehouse was a hugely talented musician who seemed to be surrounded by people who wanted more money out of her than to protect her mental or physical health; this July will mark 12 years since she died, and in that time it seems the music industry has hardly become a more welcoming place for female musicians. In recent years, many stars of Winehouse’s stature have revealed similar struggles with substance abuse and eating disorders as the singer’s during her lifetime. Much of her career has been a media frenzy, with tabloids and commentators fixated on her weight, her substance abuse issues, and her public breakdowns. The stark images of Abela on set feel like they tap into the same voyeuristic impulses that led to Winehouse’s demise. (Also troubling are Abela’s comments about her “really positive” losing weight experience to play Winehouse, which make no mention of the singer’s bulimia.)
Is it possible to make a biopic about an exploited young star who is not exploiting herself? I would probably argue not. So often it feels like people enjoy biopics because they’re scratching the same itch as true crime – there seems to be a gory fascination with seeing the pitiful depths of human existence. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t necessarily be made: I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, despite it also being a tale of exploitation and decay, because I felt it raised interesting questions about the relationship between art and commerce, and seemed to are as much about Luhrmann as they are about Elvis.
The difference is that Elvis died some 45 years ago and enjoyed a long, successful career before his death; as did Freddie Mercury, whose 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody sparked Hollywood’s interest in movies about musicians. Meanwhile, there are probably even some teenagers for whom Winehouse’s death is fresh in their minds. Her career essentially only lasted six or seven years, and for many of them she was pilloried by the public, slandered in the press, and battled her own personal demons. There’s hardly anything for Taylor-Johnson’s film to document that wouldn’t simply replicate the painful, indelible images that marked Winehouse’s life, like that of her fight with paparazzi or struggling through a “comeback” gig in Serbia. The imperatives to please audiences of big-budget biopics too often try to go both ways when it comes to portraying tragedy and success: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, the recent Whitney Houston biopic, ends with the late musician drawing the bath she would do. die in before fading into a flashback of a past performance, a strangely pale and strikingly inelegant final note.
Biopics shouldn’t have a positive or sanitized narrative – needless to say, the woefully hagiographical Bohemian Rhapsody makes a strong case against it – but making a movie about Winehouse’s short, troubled life just feels like adding insult to injury. Add to that the fact that the production is endorsed by Mitch Winehouse – who is portrayed in the 2015 documentary Amy, whom he later discredited as one of the many exploitative figures in his daughter’s life – and it’s hard to imagine what Back to Black has to offer besides trauma porn that attempts to flatter those who witnessed his daughter’s decline and did nothing to prevent it.
While some films, such as the shocking New York Times documentary about Britney Spears’ conservatory, have actually functioned as feats of journalism, there’s little to suggest that this film isn’t just part of a recent cottage industry of movies – 2021’s What Is happened, Brittany Murphy? and among them Britney vs Spears – trying to monetize historical exploitation under the guise of serious filmmaking. What else Hollywood cares about these kinds of movies is the fact that celebrities themselves seem to be competing to play tragic stars, perhaps because of how well those roles play out at award show bodies — Spears berated Millie Bobby Brown for saying she wanted to play her in a biopic, while The White Lotus star Theo James has spoken of his interest in playing George Michael in an upcoming project, which has rejected Michael’s legacy.
In the end, it feels like Back to Black is symptomatic of an entertainment industry that refuses to let the dead rest. Every year, major labels pump out new songs featuring demo vocals from dead artists like Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion, and Lil Peep; the DJ Kygo had a hit in 2019 with a version of Higher Love with old Houston vocals; in 2019 Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly were reanimated as holograms and went on an extensive double headline tour.
In 2015, it seemed that Universal, Winehouse’s label, was trying to avoid that fate for the late star by destroying her demos so no one could try to cash in on her work in progress. More recently, it’s started to feel like she’s finally being remembered, not as a purely tragic figure, but as a generational talent releasing two cherished records – and one who wasn’t purely self-destructive, but a victim of systemic abuse and mental illness. Back to Black threatens not to honor that legacy, but to revive all the demeaning sound that obscured it in the first place.