Review: What Back to Black misunderstands about Amy Winehouse –

Thanks to this new movie about Amy Winehouse, the bar for movies about musicians remains in hell.
by Kyndall Cunningham
Since the first stills of actress Marisa Abela sporting winged eyeliner and a matted beehive emerged online, the new Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black has been met with mockery, if not total dread, from fans of the late British singer.
It wasn’t just that Abela bears little resemblance to Winehouse, dressed in what looks like a last-minute Halloween costume. Given the amount of shoddy musical biopics that are being released ad nauseam, it seemed like an inadequate medium to explore the musician, who died of alcohol poisoning at 27 in 2011. Since its initial release in the UK, several critics have already affirmed these hesitations.
Making a biopic is always a delicate art form. By nature, these films are primed to be over-dissected and picked apart for historical inaccuracies, flawed impressions, and limited perspectives. In the case of Back to Black, though, the depiction of Winehouse rings both false and strikingly convenient for the people who were involved in her life.
As Jason P. Frank and Rebecca Alter write in Vulture, the film spends too much time “trying to reclaim her as wholesome,” against the tabloids’ vilifying coverage. More significantly though, it fails to address the ways the UK’s sexist media and the people around her contributed to her demise. As a result, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh end up placing most of the responsibility for Winehouse’s downfall on her fragile shoulders.
Needless to say, any attempt to dramatize Amy Winehouse’s life was going to generate polarizing opinions. But Back to Black, along with a recent slew of biopics, makes one curious as to what extent viewers must suspend their expectations and fan knowledge to enjoy a film based on true events.
Winehouse’s career — hampered by addiction and bulimia — is hardly the stuff of a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie. Her story never stood a chance within the confines of the genre. Biopics, particularly from major studios, have to shrink a person’s life into a palatable enough story that will attract the largest audience and generate the most money possible. Even with its R rating and a melodramatic flair, Back to Black is shockingly sanitized, neglecting to capture just how ugly and violent her experience actually was.
In Back to Black, Winehouse is strangely isolated from the media blitz that surrounded her life. Beginning with her early songwriting days as a teen, the script remains focused on the intimate familial and romantic dynamics that would make the biggest impact on her as an artist — specifically, her relationships with her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan), and, most of all, her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who would serve as the muse for her hit album, Back to Black.
Somehow, her most notable musical collaborators, Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, are merely footnotes in this story. The movie isn’t really interested in Winehouse’s creative process or inspiration either, aside from name-dropping some of her favorite soul artists.
Even at the height of her visibility, Winehouse spends almost all of the movie in London, specifically Camden Town, visiting loved ones, performing for small crowds in pubs, and stumbling drunkenly through the street. Aside from a notably disastrous performance at the Glastonbury Festival, you wouldn’t know that Winehouse performed shows and made public appearances outside of the UK and had many friends, including other British celebrities and musicians.
Needless to say, zooming out and portraying Winehouse as a public person would require addressing the intrusive, predatory treatment she faced from the media. At the height of her insobriety — which spawned multiple drunken live performances, arrests, and paparazzi photos of her looking bloodied and disheveled or openly doing drugs — she became not just a punchline, but practically a meal ticket for journalists and paparazzi. Tabloids mocked her body without any consideration of what appeared to be an eating disorder. Meanwhile, other outlets and comedians counted down her remaining days alive. Even after her death, she continued to be a punchline. Controversially, actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted a Halloween party a few months after her death with a meat platter labeled with her name and resembling a rotting corpse.
In Back to Black, though, moments of Winehouse being chased by paparazzi or publicly mocked are fleeting, or else noticeably absent from the storyline. Audio of comedian George Lopez announcing her Grammy nominations in 2008 is played in the film but cuts out before he makes a joke about her addiction struggles to the audience’s chuckles. Additionally, her rare encounters with the paparazzi in the film don’t totally represent what an invasive presence they were in her life, particularly as she began to publicly spiral.
In fact, the most devastating interaction she has with the press is at the end of the film when a paparazzo provokes the recently sober singer by asking about Fielder-Civil’s newborn child with his new girlfriend. The movie is rather ham-fisted in conveying Winehouse’s unfulfilled desires to be a mother, as if it’s a compelling sign of virtue for the troubled singer. That said, she immediately becomes heartbroken at the mere mention of her ex’s offspring — so much so that the film frames the moment as the cause of her relapse, prompting her death.
Another problem comes along in the film with the inaccurate portrayal of the men who had the biggest impact on Winehouse’s life — her father, Mitch, and her ex-husband, Fielder-Civil. After more than a decade of tasteless interviews and attempts to profit off Winehouse’s memory, it’s hard to view either of these men in a favorable light. Still, the movie positions them as collateral damage in Winehouse’s path of destruction. As Back to Black tells it, these men were simply trying to oblige her irrational needs, not purposely enable them.
Not only do these characterizations feel funky to anyone who’s familiar with their public antics — for example, Fielder-Civil has been accused of selling details of his and Winehouse’s love story to the tabloids — their soft depictions, in comparison to hers, feel like an extension of the same sexism she experienced in the press.
For instance, Winehouse’s relationship with Fielder-Civil in the film lacks some much-needed nuance regarding the troubling amount of power he held over her life. While Fielder-Civil has a large presence in the film, his contribution to her ruin — he admitted that he introduced her to heroin, crack cocaine, and self-harming — and the ways he seemed to prey on her weakness are glaringly understated. For the most part, he’s framed as an earnest and charming bad boy who dabbles in hard substances, which Winehouse just happened to fall into alongside him. Furthermore, as Little White Lies writer Rogan Graham notes, it’s questionable that Taylor-Johnson “goes out of her way to depict Amy’s first time trying hard drugs as an occasion when she’s alone.”
These characterizations feel funky to anyone who’s familiar with their public antics
Back to Black doesn’t have much to say about the role of her father in Winehouse’s downfall either. Despite Mitch walking out on her family as a child, Amy shared a strong bond with her father, which she commemorated with a “Daddy’s Girl” tattoo on her left arm. In the film, he’s portrayed as the biggest advocate of her singing career, protective against the other men in her life and excessively doting. While he may have been these things at certain points in her life, the 2015 documentary Amy illustrates a more complicated portrait of their relationship.
In the Oscar-winning film, directed by Asif Kapadia, Winehouse’s friends recount her father rebuffing their pleas to send Winehouse to rehab. (This moment isn’t portrayed with much reflection in Back to Black, rather just an anecdote leading up to her hit single “Rehab.”) Amy also revisits the time Mitch bombarded his daughter with a camera crew while in St. Lucia, where she fled from the public eye after getting sober in 2008. The footage was for a 2010 Channel 4 documentary called My Daughter Amy, where he, in part, expressed his own frustrations and regrets in dealing with his daughter’s addiction. After the film aired, Winehouse tweeted that the documentary was “embarrassing.”
Considering that Winehouse’s family didn’t authorize or have any say in Back to Black, according to Taylor-Johnson — although, they have endorsed it — it’s even more shameful that the film spares him from any sort of skepticism regarding the way he maneuvered in his daughter’s life. Instead, perfunctory scenes of Mitch inquiring about her weight and rushing her to a rehab facility (after he initially said no) feel like concerted PR.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, there are people who want to help. All of these resources are free.
In the US: National Eating Disorders Association helpline: Call or text 1-800-931-2237, or use the online help chat.
ANAD helpline: Call 1-888-375-7767.
Crisis Text Line: Text NEDA to 741741 for 24-hour, confidential eating disorder crisis counseling.
Outside the US: Overeaters Anonymous helpline: Call 1-505-891-2664.
This country-by-country list of organizations from World Eating Disorders Action Day can help point you to local support and resources.
With all of its missteps and murky intentions, Back to Black might just be the tipping point in a prevalent conversation about the function of musical biopics and what we should demand from them.
As early as 1946, when Cary Grant played legendary composer Cole Porter in Night and Day, musical biopics have been a huge profit generator for both the film and music industries. Following the Oscar-winning and box-office-breaking success of the2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, Hollywood — and musical artists looking to hike up their streaming numbers — have co-signed a sudden stream of lackluster or, in the case of Back to Black, utterly egregious biopics. In the past five years alone, movies offering conservative portrayals of Bob Marley, Elton John, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin have left much to be desired. As with comic-book movies as of late, it’s hard to engage with these films as much more than cash grabs coming down Hollywood’s IP conveyor belt.
This barrage of big-studio biopics is emblematic of a formula that’s proven to be commercially successful and easy to replicate. The expected melodramatic flourishes and rousing moments that make up these movies have become so obvious that they’ve inspired a subgenre of biopic parodies, like This Is Spinal Tap, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping.
When the projects transcend their conventions, they’re often the experimental work of arthouse directors, like Todd Haynes, who telegraphed Karen Capenter’s anorexia with Barbie dolls in The Karen Carpenter Story: Superstar and portrayed Bob Dylan with multiple actors in I’m Not There. (There’s also his equally good fake rock biopic, Velvet Goldmine.) Other times, they’re elevated by dynamic performances, like Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon playing Tammy Wynette and George Jones in Showtime miniseries George and Tammy. In general, though, there’s a seemingly impossible problem in having actors embody musical giants — like Winehouse — who we connect to because of their unique talent, personalities, and overall flair, which simply can’t be replicated.
It’s hard to engage with these films as much more than cash grabs coming down Hollywood’s IP conveyor belt
In a post-Me Too Hollywood, there did feel like a more obvious lane for a Winehouse biopic to occupy that would’ve at least made it feel more truthful. Many recent biographical projects outside of the musical subgenre have served the specific purpose of redeeming women from harmful public narratives and providing empathy for their experiences in the limelight. One could argue that the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde was a (very poor) attempt to make audiences sympathize with an actress whose life was ridden with turmoil — although, the lurid fabrications in the film complicate this. The Pablo Larrain film Spencer, a similarly experimental take on Princess Diana, shed light on her eating disorder and feelings of imprisonment as a member of the royal family. Another arthouse film, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, offers a more meditative counterpiece to Baz Luhrmann’s technicolored extravaganza Elvis, which neglected to address the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s abusive treatment of his then-wife, Priscilla Presley.
At this point, maybe it would’ve been reductive if Back to Black was mostly about Winehouse’s victimization. Amy already does a decent job of laying that out. Plus, these cultural reappraisals have become formulaic in their own way. However, illuminating the patriarchal forces that helped derail her life would at least provide some context for her fragility, rather than positioning her as an inevitable trainwreck destined to happen.
One could easily imagine a more compelling film interested in exploring the way Winehouse’s bulimia and the insecurity she dealt with affected her life and relationships. Instead, Back to Black adds up to nothing more than Daily Mail headlines.
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