‘Back to Black’: why some cultural icons can never be recreated

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Ever since it was announced that an Amy Winehouse biopic was in the pipeline back in 2022, many fans of the late musician have expressed their apprehension. How can such a rare and unique talent like Winehouse, known for her distinctive personality, be replicated on screen? In 2023, filming began with Marisa Abela in the role of the iconic musician and Sam Taylor-Wood in the director’s chair.

Yet, as teaser clips have begun to emerge, fans have quickly taken to social media to express their disappointment, stating that the movie appears more like a parody than a genuine celebration of her talent. Of course, it isn’t out yet, so concluding whether it is good or bad is impossible, but the clips we’ve received so far don’t seem promising.

Winehouse rose to fame when she was barely an adult, singing songs about love and heartbreak with maturity and depth, stunning listeners with her wise and honest lyrical musings. Her debut album, Frank, was a success, blending influences such as classic jazz and modern neo-soul to create something entirely new.

It was her second – and final – album, Back to Black, which truly cemented her as a star, earning her a Grammy Award in the process. Yet, despite her incredible talent for songwriting and her unforgettable and wholly idiosyncratic voice, her struggle with addiction and her troubled romantic relationships were all the press seemed to care about. The media’s intense preoccupation with Winehouse’s life only negatively affected her, and as she struggled with drugs, alcohol and an eating disorder, the singer soon became unrecognisable, passing away when she was 27.

Public interest in Winehouse has never waned, her songs continuing to resonate years later, and in 2015, a documentary about her life, Amy, was made by Asif Kapadia. The moving documentary film saw Kapadia and his crew interview around 100 people associated with Winehouse to paint an accurate and objective picture of her life, including archival footage and home videos. The documentary was widely praised for honouring her legacy with respect. So why do we need a biopic about her, too?

It seems as though biopics are becoming more and more popular with studios, with Bohemian Rhapsody, Blonde, Elvis and Rocket Man all emerging in recent years. These movies have been both praised and criticised, with works like Blonde in particular sparking rife debate online. Many called the film exploitative, a giant male fantasy, and an inaccurate and insensitive portrayal of Marilyn Monroe’s life. It seems studios aren’t bothered with how good the projects are. As long as they draw in significant conversation and controversy, subsequently leading to higher financial profit, who cares if they accurately honour their subjects? This damaging mindset has allowed movies like Back to Black to be created. 

Amy Winehouse

(Credits: Far Out / Alamy)

Before filming began, it was evident that the movie would cause outrage because biopics are an intrinsically contentious genre. Winehouse was such a singular talent whose voice and mannerisms even the most talented actor would struggle to replicate – people were obviously going to be annoyed.

Abela looks nothing like Winehouse, but that wouldn’t matter if she could nail her mannerisms and distinctive essence. Yet her portrayal of Winehouse appears far removed from the funny and intelligent woman we’ve all seen countless videos of. Back to Black feels disingenuous, and you only have to look at clips of the upcoming film to see how un-Amy-like Abela’s performance is. Her attempt at Winehouse’s speaking voice feels disjointed and forced, and her singing is even worse. 

Thus, we must ask why this film is being made. When a fantastic documentary about Winehouse already exists, what are we gaining from a movie whose cast and crew all profit off her pain and premature death for the sake of entertainment? It seems as though there is nothing to gain from her story being dramatised for the big screen other than profit.

Many have accused the movie of being ‘trauma porn’, capitalising on Winehouse’s immense suffering, which inevitably killed her. Stills from production see Abela recreating moments from Winehouse’s life when she was at her lowest, running from paparazzi in dishevelled outfits, mascara running down her face and crying hysterically in blood-stained ballet flats. We’ve seen these images of Winehouse before – to have them recreated feels uncomfortable and, to put it plainly, simply disgusting.

The media’s vicious attacks on Winehouse were vile acts of misogyny, painting her as nothing more than a troubled addict who couldn’t stop herself from being surrounded by toxic men. Why has Taylor-Wood, better known for directing Fifty Shades of Grey, felt the need to recreate these painful moments from her life? What do we really gain from them so close to the singer’s tragic passing? It feels like biopics are often prejudiced against women, with their stories often focusing on their pain more than anything else, as best evidenced by Blonde. 

It appears as though Back to Black will fall into this category, too, failing to honour the incredible talent and personality that Winehouse possessed, which allowed her to become such a beloved star. She deserves to be left to rest in peace, not caricatured for the sake of profit and cheap, lazy entertainment. Winehouse was a once-in-a-blue-moon star whose life and legacy were too large to be condensed into a two-hour film.

The thing is, there are good biopics out there, such as Control (Ian Curtis) and I’m Not There (Bob Dylan). These films succeed because they don’t rely on cheap explorations of trauma to be successful. While Control depicts Curtis’ experiences with epilepsy, depression and his eventual suicide, it does so with great nuance, refusing to shy away from his infidelity and the treatment of his wife.

But there’s a difference between Winehouse and Curtis, with the former experiencing such intense media coverage and ridicule during her time that to recreate these well-publicised images of her feels wrong. While the film empathises with Winehouse’s struggles, if the filmmakers cared, they’d leave her story alone. Nothing new is going to come to light in this film. Taylor-Wood is simply resurrecting Winehouse’s pain and trauma through pale imitation. Winehouse can’t be recreated, and Back to Black appears to be the ultimate proof.

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