We Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Amy Winehouse

The expectations and perception around the ‘Back to Black’ movie reflect a sort of mean grief over the singer persisting to this day

Getty Images/Monumental Pictures/Ringer illustration

We weren’t very kind to Amy Winehouse when she walked among us. She was a tremendous singer with a mesmerizing style, a strange case of a 21st-century pop star who was largely influenced by postwar jazz. She was also an alcoholic and, in her later years, a connoisseur of harder drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. We know this much about Amy Winehouse because The Sun published photos of her at home in East London, smoking crack, sure enough, on a famous front page with the splashy headline “Amy on Crack.” The tabloids tracked her emaciation in real time, swarming her at every smoke break and liquor run, running a barefoot woman down as if they were chasing a wet rat all over London, New York City, and Miami. Ultimately, Amy Winehouse recorded only two albums, her striking debut, Frank, and her legendary breakout, Back to Black, the latter selling millions of copies, winning a ton of awards, and setting her up for still more massive success in the long run. But Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning, alone in her flat, at age 27, five years after Back to Black, and so she became the sort of icon who now arouses great defensiveness in all corners—only now it’s too late for anyone to protect her in any real way.

So now we have the obligatory biopic, Back to Black, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey, A Million Little Pieces). Fans of Winehouse have been dreading this thing for months. The trailers seemed treacherous. Here you have the opportunity to produce a biopic about the edgiest pop singer of the century so far, and yet you’ve got Marisa Abela seeming so perfectly harmless, in the baddest of signs, in the lead role. What also doesn’t help is the very existence of Asif Kapadia’s excellent 2015 documentary, Amy, full of home video footage and passionate interviews with her family, friends, and peers. Back to Black, by comparison, seemed cartoonish. This, many feared, would be Disney’s Amy Winehouse: a pretty, sappy, plastic bit of hagiography turning her into one of those chibi caricatures of famous people that you see in children’s books. A disgrace, surely.

Really, though, Back to Black isn’t bad. We might’ve braced ourselves for something exceptionally awful, but no, Back to Black is perfectly mediocre and otherwise unremarkable, as far as these things go. It’s unsatisfying only so far as biopics, in general, are almost inherently irritating: It’s trite, it’s formulaic, and it’s conspicuously easy on key figures with keen interest in not coming off too poorly in the story of a woman who clearly wasn’t served very well by the company she kept. The two most controversial men in her life were her father, Mitch Winehouse, who notoriously discouraged her from entering rehab to address her alcoholism a couple of years after Frank; and her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced the singer to hard drugs circa Back to Black. Nearly a decade ago, Mitch trashed the Amy documentary and told those filmmakers to their faces, “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” presumably due to the film’s characterization of him as self-absorbed and negligent in the face of his daughter’s disorders.

Back to Black, as a biopic, was going to have be a more diplomatic project; Taylor-Johnson met Mitch and Janis Winehouse, and the director ultimately won the family’s approval. Back to Black isn’t entirely uncritical of Mitch but rather depicts him as a loving father who was understandably blinded by the limelight and too proud of his daughter to see the darker signs. Blake Fielder-Civil wasn’t involved in the making of Back to Black, but the biopic nonetheless spares him much blame for the hard drugs and physical violence in his relationship with Amy. What Back to Black says about Fielder-Civil is more or less what he’s said about himself in recent years: He was a bad influence, yes, but he tried to distance himself from Winehouse and ultimately divorced her in July 2009—nearly three years after the Back to Black album and two years before her death—hoping to “set her free.” With this biopic, Taylor-Johnson seems to have a similar agenda—to finally end the cycle of recriminations about the death of Amy Winehouse and instead treat the world to a more sentimental and straightforwardly enjoyable overview of her life and her music.

But who ever wanted to see that? Fans of Winehouse, if anything, might’ve found themselves wishing, perversely, to see something as startling and ugly as the contemporary tabloid coverage, something as irreverent as “Stronger Than Me,” something as righteous as “Rehab,” something as intense as “You Sent Me Flying” or, well, “Back to Black.” Amy is grainy and candid and argumentative, and that’s all about right, but of course that’s a documentary. As a biopic, Back to Black is somewhat hamstrung by the absence of the real Winehouse and its need to be significantly less demoralizing and infuriating than the real story, which culminated with one of the greatest singers of her generation dying alone, watching YouTube, on the losing end of alcohol addiction and also bulimia. The trailers, to the movie’s detriment, show a lot of scenes of the singer in her late teens, the years when she’s less recognizable as the tattooed, beehived icon she’d become, but really, this is who Winehouse was, too. Abela sells both the musical wonderment and jazz geekery of Winehouse in her formative years as well as the bruised and bleary disillusionment of her 20s, as she slathered herself in booze and tattoos, in the years after Frank and Blake. Together, Abela and Jack O’Connell, as Amy and Blake, do a decently captivating dance as two troubled lovers who clung to each other in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons. It just isn’t enough for the audience. It was never going to be enough.

Ultimately, the pre- and post-release grumbling about Back to Black isn’t owing to any egregious failure of Taylor-Johnson or whether or not Abela physically resembles the character so much as it speaks to a mean grief, persisting to this day, for Winehouse. It’s a grief to be rehashed but never relieved by a biopic such as this. We miss plenty of troubled entertainers who died too young, of course, but Winehouse especially rubbed her fate in our faces. Her biggest song was “Rehab,” for chrissakes. She was a dead woman walking through volleys of camera flashes for five years. She made her pain so plain and so integral to her music, yet it was ultimately something to be mocked and gawked at. The tabloids made her out to be some goddamned alien. The late-night comedians reduced her to a punch line. No one’s ever going to feel good about any of this, biopic or not. Amy Winehouse deserved better than just pop sainthood. She deserved so much more than Back to Black, even if it didn’t really do anything wrong. One day, we—so far as the collective consumers of popular entertainment and celebrity metaculture can be addressed as such—will be at peace about Amy Winehouse. But no time soon. We’re still mad about the girl.

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