The Biggest Controversies Surrounding The Amy Winehouse Biopic

When the British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead at her London home on July 23, 2011, it brought to an end a short life of incredible artistic highs, as well as very public personal lows. Winehouse was just 27 years old at the time of her death, but during her career she had grown to be one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet, with a trademark beehive hairdo and striking make-up and tattoos. While undoubtedly talented, much of her fame came as a result of her becoming an everpresent focus of the British tabloid press, who reported frequently on her love life, drug and alcohol use, and legal troubles.

The story of Winehouse's life was told movingly in 2015 in the Asif Kapadia documentary "Amy," which was unflinching in its portrayal of the singer's substance abuse throughout her life and the pressure that press intrusion had on her mental health. Almost a decade later, Winehouse's tragic story is due to be told again, in the big-budget biopic "Back to Black." Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, who previously recreated the early life of John Lennon in 2009's "Nowhere Boy," the film stars "Industry" lead Marisa Abela as Winehouse. But while some recent biopics such as "Elvis" have reinvigorated the fanbases of classic artists, news of "Back to Black" as well as shots of the actors on set have drawn a strong response from many Winehouse fans, who have taken to the internet to deride the project. Here are the reasons why.

Too soon?

Though Amy Winehouse released only two studio albums during her lifetime, her reputation as a singer-songwriter of unusual talent has not abated. Her classics, including "Back to Black," "My Tears Dry On Their Own," and her cover of The Zutons' "Valerie" remain familiar radio songs and popular on streaming services. For many, Winehouse is a classic artist, so it is no surprise that Hollywood is giving her the biopic treatment, as has been the case in recent years for musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, and Freddie Mercury.

One difference about the new Winehouse biopic, however, relates to how much time has passed since the singer's death. Though more than a decade has gone by since news broke that Amy Winehouse had died, she remains a vivid memory for a great many of her fans, as does the incessant press coverage of her personal problems and addiction which ultimately led to her tragic death. While audiences have grown used to dramatizations of very recent events — "The Crown" delves into the private lives of several members of the British Royal Family who are still alive — it has been argued that recreating Winehouse's downfall in such a way is potentially insensitive.

Portraying addiction

The promotional material for "Back to Black" suggests that its creators are seeking to produce a biopic that honors the memory of Amy Winehouse and amplifies her artistic greatness for a new generation of listeners. The film's synopsis reads: "'Back to Black' will focus on Amy's extraordinary genius, creativity, and honesty that infused everything she did. A journey that took her from the craziness and colour [sic] of 90's Camden High Street to global adoration — and back again, 'Back to Black' crashes through the looking glass of celebrity to watch this journey from behind the mirror, to see what Amy saw, to feel what she felt" (via Digital Spy).

But while the filmmakers' claims to focus on Winehouse's achievements are seemingly played out by the trailer, which shows the singer performing, recording, and giving interviews, fans are concerned with how the biopic will treat the darker aspects of her life and legacy. In particular, there are anxieties about how the film will portray her drug use and alcoholism. Amy Winehouse's autopsy report confirmed her death to have been the result of alcohol poisoning, meaning that it is an aspect of her life that cannot and should not be glazed over or sanitized. Her addictions also affected her behavior, her ability to perform, and undoubtedly damaged her career. The other concern is that with drug and alcohol use so central to her tragic story, mining it for entertainment is potentially exploitative or sensationalist.

Accuracy or disrespect?

Further details of the "Back to Black" shoot have raised serious questions for Amy Winehouse fans who wonder if the new biopic will treat her tragic story with the sensitivity it deserves. Marisa Abela recently admitted on the "Before the Lights" podcast that she was required to lose weight to portray the British singer (via NME). A common practice since the dawn of Hollywood, in recent years treatment of actresses in the film industry has been put under the spotlight, including the policing of body image. Abela's weight loss, however, has elicited a strong online reaction as a result of the fact that Winehouse suffered from eating disorders.

More concerning details include the fact that Winehouse's father, Mitch, who was instrumental in having the project greenlit as executor of the Winehouse estate, gave the go-ahead for the crew to film scenes for the biopic in the very flat in which Winehouse died. Similarly, it has been reported that the filming of a funeral scene has taken place in the graveyard where her remains were interred. Some may argue that this reflects the movie's striving for accuracy in terms of location, while others claim that to recreate fictionalized scenes from Winehouse's life so close to those places so associated with her death is disrespectful to her memory.

Portrayal of family

Mitch Winehouse's involvement in the project has also had some fans concerned for the direction that "Back to Black" will have taken in portraying Amy Winehouse's personal relationships, especially her relationship with her father. Famously, Mitch is referred to in Winehouse's confessional breakthrough single "Rehab," which includes the lyrics: "I ain't got the time, and if my Daddy thinks I'm fine / They tried to make me go to rehab, I said 'no, no, no.'" Though the song strikes a note of defiance, in light of her death by alcohol poisoning it gives an insight into one of the tragedies of Winehouse's downfall: that she lacked the support she needed to deal with addiction. Indeed, Mitch, who is portrayed as a proud and loving father in the "Back to Black" trailers, has been criticized for his exploitation of his talented but vulnerable daughter, with The Daily Beast noting that the patriarch comes across as the villain of the 2015 documentary "Amy." But with his involvement in "Back to Black," fans worry that his portrayal in the biopic is likely to be inaccurate and sanitized.

Similarly, the "Back to Black" trailers also reveal the story features Winehouse's intense and tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, a production assistant to whom she was married from 2007 to 2009. The marriage saw an increase in Winehouse's use of hard drugs, including crack and heroin, and the relationship was reportedly violent. How this problematic relationship, which fans have seen as marking the singer's downturn, will be portrayed in the movie is a pressing question.

Biopic fatigue

While there are several specific reasons why many Amy Winehouse fans are anxious about the release of "Back to Black," there is an argument to be made that audiences are beginning to tire of big-budget biopics more generally. Celebrity biopics, particularly those of musicians, are considered a safe bet in the film industry, with the subjects' fanbases representing pre-existing audiences for the movie that original pieces of fiction lack. But across the board, from sports stars to politicians, biopics of public figures have generally performed well at the box office and when it comes to award season.

However, some critics are now suggesting that audiences may be growing tired of the biopic genre. As Bilge Ebiri writes in Vulture, studios typically invest a great deal of effort into biopics, which are treated in many cases as examples of high art in contemporary cinema, but there is a risk of oversaturation, with 2023 representing a bumper year for releases of movies about real people, including "Napoleon," "Oppenheimer," "Nyad," "Priscilla," "Maestro, and many more arriving in cinemas over the course of the year. With news emerging that Sam Mendes has signed on to direct four separate biopics of the members of The Beatles in 2027, it seems increasingly likely that audiences will soon show signs of biopic fatigue. Whether that comes around the time of the release of "Back to Black" time will tell.