Another Reason for Sorrow: ‘Official’ Biopic of Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black,’ Is Due Out This Month

Sadly, the signs are that seven shades of ordure may well be about to hit the fan as various players stake their claims over her.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Amy Winehouse on February 14, 2007 at London. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

When icons die — after the initial weeping, wailing and why-oh-whying — they move on to a safe place where only the most devoted fans remain invested in them. They’re no longer being pulled apart by the various people who, in poor Britney Spears’ words, want a piece of them. Until the biopic comes out, that is — and then the struggle for ownership starts up all over again. 

This month sees the release of “Back To Black,” the “official” biopic of Amy Winehouse, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson of “Fifty Shades Of Grey” fame. Sadly, the signs are that seven shades of ordure may well be about to hit the fan as various players stake their claim over the singer, 17 years after her death from alcohol poisoning.

All mention of Amy’s closest collaborator, Mark Ronson, has been cut and his name removed from the credits, even though he said (without seeing the film) “I love the script… Amy was so funny and they really nailed her humor” and showed Marisa Abela — who plays Winehouse — around the studio where they recorded. Is Ms. Abela’s performance perhaps the problem?

A just-released clip of her singing has prompted online fan responses such as “I genuinely believe that anyone involved in this film should be arrested.” Ms. Abela recently disclosed that she got the part before anyone even knew if she could sing, saying “I trained really hard —  two hours a day for four months.”

Yet you can’t learn to have what Amy had, let alone by “training” for a couple of hours a day for a few months. Ms. Abela was educated at the elite Roedean school; Amy was working class, another jarring note in an age in which humbly-born artists have been squeezed out of the British cultural scene by the spawn of the wealthy, especially in popular music. Amy’s friends were immensely important to her, as she recreated the splintered family that had caused her so much sorrow; none of them has been consulted.

Then there’s the Daddy Issue. Said friends are furious that Mitch Winehouse (always considered rather too fond of the limelight, having launched his own career as a recording artist after his daughter’s death) allowed filming to take place at his daughter’s actual flat, which he now owns. Mr. Winehouse will be giving a third of his cut from the profits to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, presumably keeping the rest for himself. The former cab driver is now a very wealthy man.

There is a great fondness for Amy — it seems rude to call her “Winehouse” — remaining in England, bordering on protectiveness. Though on paper a Jewish junkie jazz singer might not be seen to have much mainstream appeal, with everything about her marking her out as an outsider and a minority taste, her spirit still bestrides pop music like a tiny, tattooed colossus.

Many of us find it distinctly irritating when she is caricatured as being just the latest in a long line of Tragic Divas, as Morrissey did when last year he penned an overheated defense of the recently dead Sinead O’Connor: “Who cared enough to save Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday?”

Who was going to save them — a prince, perhaps? It’s interesting that no one ever talks about the tragedy of every prematurely dead male pop star from Jim Morrison to Michael Jackson not being “saved.”

Those who knew Amy well talked about how easy-going she was to work with, how secure in her ability, how generous she was with everything from her time to her talent and above all how funny she was. “She was so normal…” comes up over and again. She was able to be “ordinary” because her extreme talent meant that she never had to try too hard in a milieu of narcissists with negligible musical ability jostling for our attention.

It’s probably just an unfortunate coincidence that the actress who plays her was previously in the Barbie film, but that’s already the impression we’re getting: Amy as Junkie Barbie, with her cute tattoos and her dinky oxygen mask. It would be a shame if this singular singer’s memory is disturbed by an imitator, committing karaoke on her grave.

“Are you sitting down?” my friend from the gossip column said to me when, knowing how much I liked Amy, she called to tell me that she was dead. The cinema being what it is, we’ll all be sitting down in readiness for the next chapter of the Amy Winehouse Story, which shows every sign of being another reason for sorrow.

The New York Sun

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