Back to Black Is Too Safe to Do Amy Winehouse Justice

6 minute read

Amy Winehouse wrote songs that cut to the core of heartbreak, and sang them in a voice as supple and sturdy as raw silk. In her short lifetime she earned millions of fans, a number that has only increased since her death from alcohol poisoning in 2011, at age 27. She’d long struggled with substance abuse and mental-health problems, and there’s evidence that those in her inner circle—people who stood to profit off her gifts—had failed her. No wonder those who love her feel protective of her even after death.

When the trailer for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic Back to Black dropped, Winehouse fans sprang into mother-bear mode. They claimed that the film looked cheesy, and that its star, Marisa Abela (from HBO’s Industry), who did her own singing, looked and sounded nothing like Winehouse. Worst of all, the film had been made with the cooperation of Winehouse’s father Mitch, the “daddy” who, in real life and in Winehouse’s megahit “Rehab,” had at one time deemed his daughter’s use of alcohol—the addiction that would eventually kill her—nothing to worry about. Why make a film about Amy Winehouse at all? the fans demanded. She’d suffered enough. Why not just let her rest?

There’s no clear answer to whether a troubled artist’s life should ever become fodder for a movie. Taylor-Johnson had said she sought to celebrate Winehouse’s music rather than fixate on the more sordid details of her life, and she’s arguably pulled that off. But in its middling safeness, Back to Black is also a far less robust picture than Winehouse deserves. Its failures, and fans’ anger about it even before they’d seen it, raise entwined questions: What does a music biopic owe its audience? More important, what does it owe its subject?

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Naomi Ackie as Whitney HoustonCourtesy of Tristar Pictures

We have plenty of biopics about artists whose lives and careers were damaged by substance abuse: Kasi Lemmons’ Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (2022), starring Naomi Ackie, addressed the more controversial aspects of Houston’s career with discretion and sensitivity, specifically her drug use and her longtime semi-secret relationship with Robyn Crawford. As a reasonably accurate chronicle of Houston’s life, the movie is effective and affecting. Other biopics, like Taylor Hackford’s terrific Ray Charles biopic Ray (2004), starring Jamie Foxx, address the ways family members, producers, or managers can indirectly or otherwise enable an artist’s substance abuse. One scene shows Charles jittery and high as a kite as he lays down “Night & Day” in the studio. The performance is incandescent, explosive—yet you don’t want to think about the self-destructive habit that’s fueling it.

Houston died at 48, less than seven months after Winehouse did. But her résumé, long and largely triumphant, more closely resembled that of Charles. Winehouse’s brief career and wrenching death still feel like recent history. Just watching footage of her clowning it up on a talk show, or giving one of many live performances of “Back to Black,” her signature number—each time reinventing the song as a devastating act of death and rebirth—can make you feel a little raw. The sudden death of a performer can spark a peculiar mournful helplessness, only reinforcing the perception that we live in a world gone wrong.

The frustration of Taylor-Johnson’s film is that it represents a missed opportunity, that of making an essentially celebratory movie about Winehouse while also acknowledging thornier truths about her life. Abela’s performance captures some of Winehouse’s spitfire charm, and in her singing, it’s easy to see she worked hard to recreate Winehouse’s marvelous snakes-and-ladder phrasing, her mode of tossing a line off as casually as if she were flicking a cigarette butt into the night. There’s something innocent and wrenching about the way she tells her on-again, off-again boyfriend and onetime husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), “I wanna be a wife, I wanna be a mum.” Winehouse had often indicated a yearning for that kind of security, maybe as a way of recreating the life at home she never had as a kid: Mitch left the family when Winehouse was 9, making a meaningful reappearance in her life only when she was poised for success.

Back to Black starts by introducing us to a North London girl infatuated with performers like Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, and Thelonious Monk. But it also assumes the viewer already knows something about Winehouse’s life: her bulimia, for example, a feature of her life since she was a teenager, is only subtly hinted at. (There’s a carefully shot vomiting scene, but it could be read as the aftereffects of too much partying.) The movie captures the volatility of Winehouse’s ping-ponging relationship with Fielder-Civil, but it presents him as a curiously neutral figure, not much worse than your average bad-boy charmer, when in fact he has admitted that it was he who introduced Winehouse, always a heavy drinker, to crack and heroin.

But the most questionable angle of Back to Black may come down to its depiction of Mitch. Asif Kapadia’s superb 2015 documentary Amy makes the case that Mitch Winehouse acted against his daughter’s best interests more than once. In addition to keeping her from going to rehab at an early, crucial stage, he initially resisted getting her into treatment after a serious overdose of cocaine, crack, and alcohol in 2007, not wanting her to back out of her upcoming American tour.

Mitch Winehouse blasted Kapadia for Amy, asserting that he was working on a rival movie that would set the record straight. (He appeared in another documentary about his daughter, Reclaiming Amy, in 2021.) Back to Black somewhat redeems his reputation: Mitch is played by a wonderful and hugely sympathetic actor, Eddie Marsan, and he spends much of the movie looking pained as his daughter suffers—though, tellingly, he takes action only when she finally asks him to.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Eddie Marsan as Mitch WinehouseCourtesy of Focus Features

You don’t have to know every intricacy of Winehouse’s story to sense something amiss here. Parent-child relationships are always complicated, and it’s true that Mitch opened his daughter’s life to music. A cabdriver and amateur singer, he was the guy with the records, introducing her to sounds she instinctively loved. But he’s depicted in Back to Black as an agreeable, benign presence; the truth is almost certainly more complicated. Winehouse’s fans feared that Taylor-Johnson’s movie would sensationalize her anguish for dramatic effect. As it turns out, Back to Black is respectful to a fault. The best art allows its characters—fictional ones or those based on real life—the dignity of owning their choices, even decisions they made because they couldn’t help themselves. As joyful as Winehouse could be, the somber facts of her life are interwoven with her legacy; they’re part of her complexity, her sadness. To truly respect her, we have to be tough enough to accept them, to carry some of that burden for her. Back to Black lightens that burden for us—and that’s precisely what’s wrong with it.

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