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10 April 2024

The contested afterlife of Amy Winehouse

In her life and music, she was beyond confessional. Can Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic tell us more about her than she did?

By Kate Mossman

“You’re coming to all this at a funny time,” my colleague said, as we crossed the road to meet the people from EMI. It was December 2007 and the label took our music magazine out every year. “This’ll be the last Christmas lunch for a start.” It was. Streaming was the future, and EMI had been taken over by venture capitalists. Records, as we knew them, were apparently doomed.

In the music industry there was an obsession – and it really was an obsession – with authenticity, and a fetishisation of the musical past. A string of mouthy female artists were kick-starting a Sixties soul revival in the UK: Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black was released the same year Spotify was founded, in 2006. In America, Jack White, the first hipster rock star, fashioned guitars from blocks of wood and set up his own one-man vinyl plant. Every piece in the music press seemed to claim that  X or Y was here to save recorded music. We couldn’t imagine the industry would adapt; that Walthamstow’s Adele would be an LA megastar in 2024, and that Beyoncé, then experimenting with her protective carapace “Sasha Fierce”, would be one of the most powerful women on Earth.

My first commission for the magazine was a kind of think piece about how far Amy Winehouse’s human experiment would go. Where would it lead her, this fascinating ability to inhabit her songs? Winehouse had no pop alter ego. In one sense her whole look was a performance but it fitted as a permanent skin, inked and scratched, more closely burned on with each tattoo. You imagined she slept in it; she certainly wore it to the corner shop. I’ll never forget the pap shot of her dressed for the part, looking at the tabloid covers to see what had been said about her that week.

In my piece, I made a casual reference to the milk bottles piling up on her Camden doorstep. I would never write that about someone now. In 2008, I watched her at Glastonbury, teetering around on stage, drunk and off-key, and I still recall the feeling in the crowd: it was a kind of hardness. Everyone turned up because they didn’t know how long she’d be with us. I can’t think of a pop death in my lifetime that has been so pre-ordained.

Amy Winehouse released just two albums before she died, aged 27, in 2011: Frank in 2003, and Back to Black in 2006. She inhaled her inspirations – Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald – so deeply that it seemed unnecessary to compare her to anyone. She was raw rather than slick, and she wrote in a way that was beyond confessional – it felt less like her songs reflected her very public experiences of addiction and depression, and more like the music was generating the life itself.

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The Noughties, though we didn’t know it, were a really grim time. The first flush of reality TV contributed to the sense that celebrity was something to be pilloried, that being respectful to people in the public eye was pointless with so many constantly coming through. By the time Winehouse was operating, the media had a momentum all of its own, with phone-hacking, Heat magazine and the first celebrity websites. Women who enjoyed a night out – Charlotte Church, Lily Allen, Girls Aloud – were devoured by the paps in a strange combination of encouragement and shaming.

We were years away from conversations about kindness and empathy. Amy Winehouse was a great talent in the last days of analogue, but her story is particularly unique because she came just before social media could be used to protect that kind of star. She had no control of her image, and she just missed the cultural movements that might have put her experience in perspective – #MeToo, and endless talk of mental health. There were no Instagram followers to give her an abstract sense that she had fans who cared (#lionesses, they’d be called, after her record label); no opportunity to build herself up to sobriety with the sweet if vacuous affirmations of people she had never met, or to “break free” from sinister forces, the way Britney Spears has done. Forget the beehive – this is the thing that puts Amy Winehouse in another age. She still lived in a time when as long as you could stand up, you would go on stage and no one would stop you. It was a relatively small and claustrophobic life: her partner Blake, her father Mitch, and Camden.

Sam Taylor-Johnson made her biopic Back to Black in the wake of Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a powerful but ghoulish Oscar-winning documentary. Taylor-Johnson and her three female producers believe the music is eclipsed by the death – that Winehouse lived in a goldfish bowl. She made Nowhere Boy, about the young John Lennon, one of the least cringey pop biopics from the UK. But she has done a deal with the devil of sorts, because if you want to make the Amy Winehouse biopic you need the Amy Winehouse music, and if you want the music you need Mitch Winehouse on board. For those who don’t know, this is a man last in the tabloids (according to a brief google) for suing two of her closest friends for £730,000, after they sold some of her possessions in an auction. The man who horrified his daughter with a TV crew when she’d fled to St Lucia in one of many attempts to get clean. (He said he was trying to make a documentary about families struggling with addiction, and had her consent.) And he is alleged to have stopped her going to rehab (“I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…”) – though he said in 2015 that what he originally said had been taken out of context and that he didn’t know what he was dealing with.

Picture now the benign, eager face of Eddie Marsan as Mitch. In the film, when Marisa Abela’s vivacious, bolshy Amy eventually decides to seek clinical help, he says, “You serious? Let’s go!” and grabs his taxi keys. Taylor-Johnson has said that the family had no creative control over the film: that she wanted to show how much Winehouse loved her father, “whether we think he did right or wrong” (she had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her arm). If he really had no involvement, you do wonder about the random snatch of dialogue in which Amy suggests that she and Mitch should record an album together in New York one day: he is very proud of his amateur singing, and once appeared at the Royal Albert Hall.

Father and daughter blow hot and cold in the film: he regularly drives her around in the back of his black cab, to Ronnie Scott’s to crash a daytime jazz rehearsal, to the crematorium to pay their respects to Nan (Lesley Manville). The film sets the historical scene well. “There is strong competition from Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua and Joss Stone,” the Island record label tells her. And Camden looks evocative – they’ve kept out of shot all the luxury flats that have spoiled the Lock when they film her running down it with her pals. In the Good Mixer, where she meets Blake, she drinks an unimaginable combo of Southern Comfort, vodka, Baileys and banana liqueur.

The issue is that in order to return a sense of agency to Amy Winehouse, the film takes the focus off the men in her life, making her the architect of her own eventual fall. Played by Jack O’Connell, her addict husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to heroin, is gorgeous: “I like to sabotage myself,” he says huskily. Despite clunky references to Jack Kerouac and the Shangri-Las, their first meeting is so well drawn, over so many hours, you feel genuinely bereft when his girlfriend turns up.

Blake loves Class-As and Amy says they’re for mugs. Nan warns her about booze before her death, while Mitch says very little. Though the film shows the pair’s descent into addiction, with dreamlike scenes of nude swimming and a tattooist ordered up to their Miami hotel suite like room service, it does not show the full reach of their co-dependent highs. Curiously, this gives the impression that Blake, rather than Amy, is struggling with the endless lows, trying to go straight. He runs through the streets of Soho, his face covered in scratches, saying he can’t take any more. This is the same Blake who suddenly goes to prison for battering a barman: “Everyone thinks you’re the way you are because of me,” he tells her at visiting time. Mitch excluded Fielder-Civil from the funeral, so it’s strange that he gets a free ride.

You can only assume that Taylor-Johnson wanted to depict Amy’s adored husband and father as Amy herself would want to remember them: that this is part of her tribute. Abela is loveable and complex in the role, from her delicious early flirtation with Blake about babies and marriage to her corner-shop descent. She turned up to the audition with no attempt to look like Winehouse, and her singing voice is not a bad match. But is it better, in 2024, to think that Winehouse did it all to herself? Back to Black is the portrait of an addict, more than it is an exploration of fame. Music is not a refuge, as it so often is in rock biopics: it is just the pain of her life written large. “I’ve got to make something good out of something bad,” she tells a radio DJ in a slow, distracted voice. The woman smiles: “Well, it’s certainly good!”, leaving the artist alone with the terrible paradox.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse. Studio Canal

Elliott Smith, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Janis Joplin… they’re wistful names, artistic souls lost far too soon. Amy Winehouse doesn’t feel the same yet. In the wake of poor tabloid behaviour there’s a reluctance to go near the person in posthumous tributes. We are all implicated in what happened to her. It takes years for the distaste, guilt and shame to wear off. The whole period she came from feels sticky; the Libertines, the trilbies, the last gasp of rock ’n’ roll.

In her attempt to put the woman back at the centre of her own life, Taylor-Johnson has at least captured an addictive personality and achieved a powerful portrait of doomed love. It’s not fourth-wave feminist stuff, and it’s not very 2024. Artistically, that is a relief. She also makes clear that Winehouse died after a long period of sobriety, which is important. She would only relapse, at least in her words, because she was bored.

Modern pop stars are boring. They have a heightened awareness of mental health, and cancel tours with little notice due to their anxiety. There is no doubt they are living in a better world, even under the defensive super-surveillance of social media fandom. Others who came up at the same time as Amy Winehouse, and are still with us, are superhuman, immaculate, careful. It is hard to imagine her elusive, putting up a photo every six months, or releasing a country album to kick-start the think pieces. It does not fit her.

She was not sanctimonious, and she fetishised her weakness, writing lyrics like, “You should be stronger than me.” Nowadays, her dark wit might be tempered by therapy speak, her beehive silvering as a judge on The Voice, laughing uproariously and coaching young girls. Maybe she’d be barely seen, and living in domestic quietude like Rihanna, who also seemed so fragile at the height of her fame. Or maybe Amy Winehouse would have been cancelled long ago, for saying something naughty about #MeToo.

“Back to Black” is in cinemas from 12 April

[See also: Netflix’s Prince Andrew film Scoop is fun to watch. But what’s the point?]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward