It’s only been a week since Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black began filming in London, but the backlash has already come thick and fast. Over the weekend, pictures of Marisa Abela and Eddie Marsan in character as Amy and her father, Mitch Winehouse, made their way on to 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-level approximation of Winehouse’s trademark beehive, as “fucking revolting”: 34,000 likes and 3,500 quote tweets seemed to agree with the sentiment.
It’s hard to judge a film before even a single frame has been officially released, but it’s understandable that the set photos touched a nerve. In recent years, Winehouse’s troubled life and entirely preventable death have become emblematic of the ways that the entertainment and media industries fail young stars. Winehouse was a hugely talented musician who seemed to be surrounded by people more intent on wringing money from her than protecting her mental or physical health; this July marks 12 years since she died, and in that time, it would seem that the music industry has hardly become a more hospitable place for female musicians. In recent years, many stars of Winehouse’s stature have disclosed similar struggles with drug abuse and disordered eating to those experienced by the singer during her lifetime. Much of her career was a media circus, with tabloids and commentators fixating on her weight, her substance abuse issues and her public meltdowns. The stark images of Abela on set feel like they play into the very same voyeuristic impulses that led to Winehouse’s decline. (Distressing, too, are Abela’s comments on her “really positive” experience of losing weight to play Winehouse, which include no mention of the singer’s bulimia.)
Is it possible to make a biopic about an exploited young star that isn’t itself exploitative? I would argue probably not. So often, it feels as if people enjoy biopics because they scratch 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 be made, necessarily: I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, despite it also being a story of exploitation and decline, because I felt it raised interesting questions about the relationship between art and commerce, and seemed to be as much about Luhrmann as it was about Elvis.
The difference is that Elvis died some 45 years ago and he enjoyed a long, successful career before his death; as did Freddie Mercury, whose 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody supercharged Hollywood’s interest in films about musicians. Meanwhile it’s likely that there are even some teenagers for whom Winehouse’s death is fresh in the mind. Her career essentially lasted just six or seven years, and for many of them she was pilloried by the public, slandered in the press and battling 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 characterised Winehouse’s life, such as those of her fighting with paparazzi or struggling through a “comeback” performance in Serbia. The crowd-pleasing imperatives of big-budget biopics too often attempt to have it 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 that she would die in before fading to a flashback of a past performance, a strangely wan and strikingly inelegant final note.
Biopics shouldn’t have to spin a positive or sanitised narrative – needless to say, the woefully hagiographic Bohemian Rhapsody makes a strong case against it – but to make a film about Winehouse’s short, troubled life simply feels like adding insult to injury. Add to that the fact that the production is endorsed by Mitch Winehouse – who is depicted in the 2015 documentary Amy, which he later went to great lengths to discredit, as one of the many exploitative figures in his daughter’s life – and it’s hard to picture what Back to Black may offer beyond trauma porn that seeks to flatter those who witnessed his daughter’s decline and did nothing to prevent it.
While some films, such as the New York Times’ shocking documentary on Britney Spears’s conservatorship, have genuinely acted as pieces of needle-shifting journalism, there’s little to suggest that this film isn’t just part of a recent cottage industry of films – 2021’s What Happened, Brittany Murphy? and Britney vs Spears among them – that seek to make money off the back of historical exploitation under the guise of serious film-making. Adding to Hollywood’s interest in these kinds of films is the fact that celebrities themselves seem to be champing at the bit to play tragic stars, perhaps because of how well those roles play with awards bodies – Spears slammed Millie Bobby Brown for saying she wanted to play her in a biopic, while The White Lotus star Theo James has been talking about his interest in portraying George Michael in a forthcoming project, which Michael’s estate has disavowed.
Ultimately, it feels as if 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 such as Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion and Lil Peep; the DJ Kygo had a hit in 2019 with a version of Higher Love using 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 like Universal, Winehouse’s label, was attempting to avoid that fate for the late star by destroying her demos so that nobody could attempt to cash in on her works-in-progress. More recently, it had begun to feel as if she 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. Back to Black threatens not to honour that legacy, but to revive all the demeaning noise that obscured it in the first place.
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