As a trailer is released for Back to Black, which stars Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse, what do we know about the film so far and why are some upset by it?
Just over a decade since the death of acclaimed singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, a biopic promising to chart her “intense journey to fame” is already due for release. A new trailer for Back to Black released by StudioCanal and Monumental Pictures yesterday showed Industry breakout star Marisa Abela donning the singer’s instantly recognisable 1960s-inspired beehive hairdo, heavy, winged eyeliner and swirling shoulder tattoos. But the reactions from Winehouse fans were far from positive: critics were quick to decry Winehouse’s lack of autonomy over her representation in the film, accuse the film’s producers of turning a profit from the singer’s turbulent later years, and claim that the biopic comes too soon.
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There were already grumbles of discontent when images of Abela on set in London emerged last year, apparently in character as Winehouse in distress – beehive dishevelled and makeup smudged. A wave of backlash swiftly followed, with one social media user describing the images as “revolting”. Before even a clip of Back to Black had been made public, Winehouse’s followers were already on high alert to the prospect that a film about her life could sensationalise its more tragic elements and exploit her story.
It’s understandable that fans want to protect the singer and her legacy. During her life, Winehouse’s image, drug and alcohol consumption and relationships were routinely pilloried by the press – despite her many accolades as an artist. In 2009, Winehouse gained an injunction against the paparazzi agency, Big Pictures, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. She was also the first woman to win five Grammy Awards, and continues to be a hugely influential artist, inspiring the likes of pop megastars Adele, Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish. A mere 13 years after her death, the possibility of seeing some of Winehouse’s more tragic moments dredged up again onscreen – including performances where she was intoxicated or booed offstage – is a distasteful prospect to some.
Representations of real lives can tread a fine line between authenticity and crass parody, the final season of The Crown being a prime example. The show was criticised for “[giving] viewers just what no one needed: more of Diana and Dodi, Charles and Camilla, Will and Kate; all of the tabloids’ greatest hits.”
The concern is that Back to Black will continue to reinforce this cycle of abuse and exploitation set in motion by the media. As Roisin O’Connor writes in The Independent, “Given the vulture-like efficiency with which her life was picked over, it’s near-impossible to think of a sincere reason to make a movie about Winehouse – at least not one that isn’t motivated by greed.”
Authentic or exploitative?
There is also the question of whether a biopic celebrating Winehouse’s legacy is really needed when she died so young. Critics have pointed out that there are already existing films honouring Winehouse’s life and career, most notably Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy. The film snapped up numerous awards, including an Oscar, a Bafta and the MTV Movie Award for best documentary. The critically acclaimed BBC documentary Reclaiming Amy followed in 2021. Is another Winehouse film justified, then?
Given that Sam Taylor-Johnson will be taking the helm as director, there is hope that Back to Black may stand up as an authentic portrait
Then there’s the issue of embodying of Winehouse’s iconic presence and character onscreen – surely a near impossible feat. Abela’s resemblance to Winehouse has been called into question, with Winehouse’s father Mitch feeling the need to defend the casting decision: “Marisa’s a great choice for the role, even if she doesn’t look exactly like Amy.” Further, the decision to cast a “newcomer” in such a major role seems puzzling.
Given that Sam Taylor-Johnson will be taking the helm as director however, there is hope that Back to Black may stand up as an authentic portrait. The filmmaker proved her biopic credentials with Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon, which gained generally warm reviews and four Bafta nominations. According to a report in Rolling Stone, Taylor-Johnson was also reportedly friends with Winehouse. “My connection to Amy began when I left college and was hanging out in the creatively diverse London borough of Camden,” Taylor-Johnson said in a statement last year. “I first saw her perform at a talent show at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, and it was immediately obvious she wasn’t just ‘talent’… she was genius.”
Winehouse’s father, Mitch, is also involved in the film, which has raised concerns that he may in some way attempt to rewrite his daughter’s story. The Amy Winehouse Foundation founder was a vocal opponent of Kapadia’s documentary for its less-than-flattering portrayal. He has also been criticised for his involvement in an Amy Winehouse hologram tour – now quashed after “unique challenges and sensitivities” – and a Winehouse Broadway musical which is currently in the works.
With Sofia Coppola’s biopic of Priscilla Presley in cinemas now, and the lives of popstars like Britney Spears being re-examined, it is clear that stories about female celebrities who experience abuse or hardship are popular – but what does that mean for Amy Winehouse? “More recently, it had begun to feel as if [Winehouse] was finally being remembered not as a purely tragic figure but as a generational talent who released two cherished records – and someone who wasn’t purely self-destructive, but a victim of systematic abuse and mental illness,” writes Shaad D’Souza in The Guardian. “Back to Black threatens not to honour that legacy, but to revive all the demeaning noise that obscured it in the first place.”
Back to Black is released on 12 April in the UK and on 10 May in the US.
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