Zodiac Sign · May 19, 2024

Ever since the initial images surfaced featuring actress Marisa Abela donning winged eyeliner and a textured beehive hairstyle, the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic, "Back to Black," has been greeted with ridicule, if not outright apprehension, by admirers of the deceased British songstress.

The issue extends beyond Abela's lack of resemblance to Winehouse, as she appears dressed in what resembles a hastily thrown-together Halloween costume. Considering the inundation of poorly executed musical biopics flooding the market, it feels like an insufficient medium to delve into the life of the musician, who tragically succumbed to alcohol poisoning at the age of 27 in 2011. Since its debut in the UK, numerous critics have echoed these reservations.

Crafting a biopic is inherently a delicate endeavor. Such films are inherently prone to intense scrutiny, with audiences dissecting them for historical inaccuracies, flawed portrayals, and narrow viewpoints. However, with "Back to Black," the portrayal of Winehouse feels both contrived and conveniently aligned with the perspectives of those connected to her life.

In their piece for Vulture, Jason P. Frank and Rebecca Alter point out that the film invests excessive effort in "trying to reclaim her as wholesome," countering the vilifying portrayal by tabloids. However, more importantly, it neglects to acknowledge the role played by the UK's sexist media and the individuals surrounding her in her tragic downfall. Consequently, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh ultimately attribute most of the responsibility for Winehouse's demise to her own vulnerable state.

Certainly, any endeavor to dramatize Amy Winehouse's life was bound to evoke divergent opinions. However, "Back to Black," along with a string of recent biopics, prompts one to ponder the extent to which viewers must set aside their preconceptions and intimate knowledge as fans to appreciate a film grounded in real events.

Biopics inevitably fall short of fully capturing the complexities of a person's life. However, "Back to Black" goes beyond that; it attempts to whitewash history.

Winehouse's tumultuous career, plagued by addiction and bulimia, hardly fits the mold of a feel-good popcorn flick. Her narrative was never suited for the constraints of the biopic genre. Particularly in productions backed by major studios, biopics often streamline a person's life into a digestible story aimed at attracting the widest audience and maximizing profits. Despite its R rating and melodramatic touches, "Back to Black" is surprisingly sanitized, failing to depict the true ugliness and violence of her experiences.

"Back to Black" portrays Winehouse as oddly insulated from the media frenzy that engulfed her existence. From her formative years as a teenage songwriter, the screenplay remains fixated on the personal familial and romantic dynamics that profoundly shaped her as an artist. This includes her interactions with her grandmother Cynthia (played by Lesley Manville), her father Mitch (portrayed by Eddie Marsan), and above all, her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who served as the inspiration for her acclaimed album, "Back to Black."

Interestingly, her prominent musical collaborators, Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, are relegated to mere footnotes in this narrative. The film appears disinterested in delving into Winehouse's creative process or sources of inspiration, beyond superficially mentioning some of her beloved soul artists.

Throughout the film, even during the peak of her fame, Winehouse is predominantly depicted in London, particularly in Camden Town, where she frequents visits with loved ones, entertains small pub crowds, and wanders drunkenly through the streets. Apart from a notably disastrous performance at the Glastonbury Festival, the portrayal fails to convey Winehouse's international performances and public appearances, as well as her extensive circle of friends, which included other British celebrities and musicians.

Undoubtedly, portraying Winehouse as a public figure would necessitate confronting the intrusive and predatory treatment she endured from the media. During the peak of her struggles with substance abuse—marked by numerous intoxicated performances, arrests, and paparazzi snapshots depicting her in disarray or openly using drugs—she became not merely a subject of ridicule, but practically a lucrative commodity for journalists and paparazzi. Tabloids shamelessly mocked her physique, disregarding signs of a potential eating disorder. Simultaneously, other media outlets and comedians callously speculated on her remaining days alive. Even following her tragic passing, she remained a target for insensitive jokes. Notably, actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted a Halloween party just months after her death, featuring a meat platter labeled with her name and resembling a decomposing corpse, sparking controversy and further underscoring the lack of empathy surrounding her legacy.

In "Back to Black," instances of Winehouse being pursued by paparazzi or subjected to public ridicule are either brief or noticeably omitted from the narrative. For example, the film includes audio of comedian George Lopez announcing her Grammy nominations in 2008, but conveniently cuts out before he makes a joke about her addiction struggles, to the amusement of the audience. Furthermore, her limited interactions with the paparazzi in the film fail to fully convey the invasive presence they had in her life, especially as she began to publicly unravel.

Indeed, the most poignant encounter Winehouse has with the press occurs towards the end of the film, when a paparazzo cruelly taunts the recently sober singer by mentioning Fielder-Civil's newborn child with his new partner. The movie somewhat clumsily portrays Winehouse's yearning to become a mother, almost suggesting it as a redeeming quality for the troubled artist. Consequently, she is visibly shattered at the mere mention of her ex's child, to the extent that the film frames this moment as the catalyst for her relapse and eventual demise.

The film also falls short in its portrayal of the men who significantly influenced Winehouse's life—her father, Mitch, and her ex-husband, Fielder-Civil. Despite their well-documented history of insensitive interviews and attempts to capitalize on Winehouse's legacy, the movie portrays them as mere casualties in Winehouse's tumultuous journey. According to "Back to Black," these men are depicted as merely attempting to accommodate her irrational demands rather than actively enabling them.

The portrayal of these characters not only seems off to those familiar with their public behavior—such as Fielder-Civil's alleged sale of details about his and Winehouse's relationship to the tabloids—but their sympathetic depictions, contrasted with Winehouse's, could be seen as an extension of the same sexist treatment she endured in the media.

In the film, Winehouse's relationship with Fielder-Civil lacks the necessary nuance concerning the troubling extent of power he wielded over her life. Despite Fielder-Civil's significant presence in the narrative, his role in her downfall—acknowledged admissions of introducing her to heroin, crack cocaine, and self-harm—and his apparent exploitation of her vulnerabilities are glaringly downplayed. Instead, he is largely portrayed as an affable and charismatic rebel who casually indulges in hard substances, with Winehouse portrayed as merely following his lead. Additionally, as highlighted by Little White Lies writer Rogan Graham, it raises questions when Taylor-Johnson specifically depicts Amy's first encounter with hard drugs as a solitary experience.

"Back to Black" also fails to delve into the role of Winehouse's father in her decline. Despite Mitch's abandonment of her family during her childhood, Amy maintained a close bond with him, symbolized by her "Daddy's Girl" tattoo on her left arm. In the film, he is depicted as her staunchest supporter in her singing career, protective against other men, and excessively doting. While he may have exhibited these qualities at times, the 2015 documentary "Amy" paints a more intricate picture of their relationship.

In the Oscar-winning film "Amy," directed by Asif Kapadia, Winehouse's friends recall her father rejecting their pleas to send her to rehab. This pivotal moment, which isn't portrayed with much depth in "Back to Black," serves merely as an anecdote leading up to her hit single "Rehab." "Amy" also revisits the incident when Mitch brought a camera crew to St. Lucia, where Winehouse sought refuge from the public eye after achieving sobriety in 2008. The footage was intended for the 2010 Channel 4 documentary "My Daughter Amy," in which Mitch expressed his own frustrations and regrets in dealing with his daughter's addiction. Following the documentary's airing, Winehouse publicly criticized it as "embarrassing."

Given that Winehouse's family didn't authorize or have any input in "Back to Black," as stated by Taylor-Johnson—though they have endorsed it—it's even more disappointing that the film glosses over any critical examination of Mitch's role in his daughter's life. Instead, the brief scenes of Mitch expressing concern about her weight and eventually facilitating her admission to rehab (after initially resisting) come across as superficial attempts at public relations.

The question of whether musical biopics will ever truly satisfy us remains open. However, with its numerous missteps and questionable motives, "Back to Black" could indeed serve as a catalyst for a broader discussion about the purpose of musical biopics and the standards we should hold them to.

Since as early as 1946, when Cary Grant portrayed legendary composer Cole Porter in "Night and Day," musical biopics have consistently been lucrative ventures for both the film and music industries. The overwhelming success of the 2018 Queen biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody," which garnered Oscars and shattered box office records, has prompted Hollywood—and musical artists eager to boost their streaming figures—to endorse a sudden influx of subpar or, as seen with "Back to Black," downright objectionable biopics. In the past five years alone, films offering sanitized portrayals of figures like Bob Marley, Elton John, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin have left audiences wanting more. Similar to the recent surge in comic-book adaptations, it's difficult to view these films as anything beyond opportunistic endeavors churned out by Hollywood's IP machine.

The influx of big-studio biopics epitomizes a formula that has demonstrated commercial success and is relatively simple to reproduce. The predictable melodrama and stirring moments that define these films have become so clichéd that they've even spawned a subgenre of biopic parodies, including classics like "This Is Spinal Tap," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," and "Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping."

When biopic projects transcend their conventional boundaries, they often emerge as experimental endeavors by arthouse directors. For instance, Todd Haynes notably depicted Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia using Barbie dolls in "The Karen Carpenter Story: Superstar" and portrayed Bob Dylan through multiple actors in "I'm Not There." (Haynes also delivered another remarkable fake rock biopic, "Velvet Goldmine.") Alternatively, some biopics are elevated by captivating performances, such as Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon's portrayals of Tammy Wynette and George Jones in the Showtime miniseries "George and Tammy." However, in general, there's an inherent challenge in having actors embody musical icons—such as Winehouse—who captivate us due to their unique talents, personalities, and distinctive flair, qualities that are nearly impossible to replicate.

In the post-Me Too era of Hollywood, there seemed to be a more apparent opportunity for a Winehouse biopic to adopt a truthful approach. Many recent biographical projects outside of the musical genre have aimed to redeem women from damaging public narratives and foster empathy for their experiences in the spotlight. For instance, one could argue that the Marilyn Monroe biopic "Blonde" was a (albeit flawed) attempt to elicit sympathy for an actress whose life was marked by turmoil—although, the sensationalized aspects of the film complicate this. Similarly, the Pablo Larraín film "Spencer," an experimental take on Princess Diana, illuminated her struggles with an eating disorder and feelings of confinement within the royal family. Another arthouse film, Sofia Coppola's "Priscilla," serves as a contemplative counterpart to Baz Luhrmann's vibrant portrayal of Elvis Presley, "Elvis," which notably omitted the King of Rock 'n' Roll's abusive treatment of his then-wife, Priscilla Presley.

At this juncture, perhaps it would have been oversimplified if "Back to Black" predominantly focused on portraying Winehouse as a victim. After all, "Amy" already offers a comprehensive exploration of her victimization. Moreover, these cultural reassessments have begun to follow their own predictable patterns. However, shedding light on the patriarchal influences that contributed to derailing her life would have provided valuable context for understanding her vulnerability, rather than portraying her as an unavoidable disaster waiting to unfold.

One could envision a far more captivating film that delves into the profound impact of Winehouse's bulimia and insecurities on her life and relationships. Unfortunately, "Back to Black" falls short of this potential, ultimately feeling like a collection of sensationalized tabloid headlines rather than a nuanced exploration of Winehouse's experiences.

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