Back to Black

Image Credit: Monumental Pictures

Film and TV Editor Ciara Whelan discusses the recently released trailer for the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic, Back to Black, and questions the viability of the increasing number of female celebrity biopics

In the months leading up to the summer cinema schedule, there are plenty of teasers and trailers dropping in theatres and online to keep audiences anticipating the season’s major cinematic events. Among the cohort is the new Amy Winehouse biopic directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and titled after her infamous hit single, Back to Black, released in Ireland and the UK on April 12th. The trailer was released to social media in early February and has in the weeks since garnered a mammoth response from users and critics alike. Many fans of Winehouse’s music and career, defined by hits like “Valerie” and “Rehab” and a heap of accolades including five Grammy awards in 2008, were left deflated by the film’s trailer and the awkward vocal performance by the lead actress that it showcased. Early reviews have further indicated that the film leaves much to be desired in the way of celebrating Winehouse’s life and career. Might this film already be another example of a deceased woman’s legacy being used to generate profit? 

Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black is but another film in a series of female-centred celebrity biopics distributed in the last few years; Judy Garland is played by Reneé Zellweger in Judy (2019), Lady Diane is played by Kristin Stewart in Spencer (2021) and Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown (2016-2023), Whitney Houston by Naomi Ackie in I Wanna Dance With Somebody (2022), Marilyn Monroe by Ana de Armas in Blonde (2022), and now Amy Winehouse is played by English actress and recent member of the Barbie ensemble cast, Marisa Abela. It is clear that these types of films have become a Hollywood staple of late, and the genre has become somewhat of a standard in the current market. This oversaturated market could be considered a problem when the recurrent thematic and aesthetic trends shared by these films are mapped and acknowledged. These female-centred biopics insist on resurrecting the deceased and depicting, in an often brutal and unflattering fashion, the abuse and trauma suffered by these women throughout their careers in the spotlight. The biopic is then becoming a standardised format for the exhuming of pain and trauma from the legacy of a star at rest and glamorising this experience for the sake of media production and profit. Hollywood’s refusal to let the dead rest is seemingly all the more apparent in this upcoming screen rendering of Winehouse’s personal life and public career. 

The biopic is then becoming a standardised format for the exhuming of pain and trauma from the legacy of a star at rest and glamorising this experience for the sake of media production and profit.

Following the release of the Back to Black trailer, users were quick to point out Abela’s lack of physical resemblance to Winehouse, which was worsened only by the poor quality of costumes and wigs used to resurrect the singer’s iconic image. But it was the performance of Winehouse’s song “Stronger Than Me,” which was condemned by fans as a completely inaccurate mimicry of Winehouse’s legendary singing style. This was the final nail in the film’s coffin for many viewers, who had decried the film for its portrayal of Winehouse and her toxic relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. With this much controversy surrounding the film’s narrative and portrayal of Winehouse, it is no wonder that the early reviews by critics have been less than stellar. IndieWire reviewer Vikram Murthi said that though Abela’s performance was worthy of praise; “the film’s tawdry instincts and misguided sense of responsibility let Winehouse’s memory down.”

The fetishistic images of celebrity suffering that have been presented to audiences of the female-centred biopic for the last few years are all too recognisable in the newly released Back to Black. This discourse around this issue has been on the rise for months leading up to the film’s release, especially after set photos of Abela were leaked to the public early last year and many decried the ethics of exploiting such traumatic events in Winehouse’s life for the screen. The legacy of these beloved stars is worth acknowledging, but Hollywood might find themselves digging deeper into the graves of the deceased should this worrying cinematic trend continue.