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Back to Black: A Celebration or Exploitation of Amy Winehouse

Exploring the Amy Winehouse biopic and it’s mixed reviews amongst audiences and critics

Amy Winehouse at the Grammys, next to Marisa Abela playing Amy Winehouse
Credit: Youtube/Focus Features

The Amy Winehouse biopic was released on the 12th of April, but audiences have been expressing mixed opinions about the film long before its release. Is Back to Black a celebration of Amy’s legacy? Or does it exploit her story and struggles?

What is Back to Black?

Back to Black is the latest release in the celebrity biopic drama. Following the success of Rocketman (Elton John), Queen, and the recent Elvis biopic. Back to Black explores the life of Amy Winehouse, her family dynamics, and her turbulent relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil which inspired her most popular album ‘Back to Black’.

Sam Taylor-Johnson is the director of ‘Back to Black’. She previously directed Fifty Shades of Grey, and the John Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’. An interview with Johnson revealed:

“I felt like it was time to go from her perspective, and give her agency back, and allow her to tell us her story through the music.”

Jack King

The Cast of Back to Black

Marisa Abela is Amy Winehouse. The 27-year-old has previously starred in BBC One’s Industry, and was a relative newcomer to the TV and Film industry. Abela is of Jewish heritage which was an important factor in the casting process to stay authentic to Winehouse’s background. 

Marisa Abela in the recording studio as 'Amy Winehouse'
Credit: Youtube/FocusFeatures

Jack O’Connell plays Amy’s previous partner Blake Fielder-Civil. O’Connell  

The Skins alumni has amassed several television and film credits, recently starring alongside Emma Corrin in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Marisa Abela and Jack O'Connell as Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil
Credit: Youtube/FocusFeatures

Eddie Marsan stars as Amy Winehouse’s father. He remains a controversial figure since the 2015 Amy documentary which suggested he was exploitative in handling his daughter’s struggle with stardom and addiction.

The Representation of Addiction in Back to Black:

Amy Winehouse’s struggles with addiction are a prevalent theme in the biopic. Since leaked pictures of the Back to Black set leaked, audiences expressed shocked at the graphic depiction of Amy’s addiction.

@thenewsmovement

Marisa Abela will be playing Amy Winehouse in the new biopic ‘Back To Black’…. and the reviews are mixed… #amywinehouse #marisaabela #backtoblack

♬ original sound – The News Movement
Credit: TikTok/@thenewsmovement

Blake’s substance abuse is depicted in Back to Black. The film explores how their behavior slowly comes to mirror each other. We see Amy’s addiction spiral as she deals with the intensity of fame and surveillance of the paparazzi.

However, Back to Black does portray the intensities of addiction as well as the impact of the disease on an individual’s family and friends. A crucial scene in the film depicts Amy opening up to her Father asking for help as we see her enter rehab and commit to recovery.

An interviewer questioned Marisa Abela whether the portrayal of Amy’s struggles was accurate

“I think we felt, Matt and Sam felt, that it was time to put Amy back in the centre of her own story as a person rather than a victim of a tragedy. Of course, there were lots of tragic moments in Amy’s life, but more than that, she was a human being. An incredibly powerful, impressive on.”

Emily Maddick

How Have Audiences Responded to Back to Black?

Back to Black has received polarising opinions from audiences and critics alike. The Guardian has branded the film as a “wildly uneven portrait of Amy Winehouse“. While the Independent argued it was “cringeworthy and queasy-making“.

One Critic Argued:

“As much as the party line insists this film is a celebration of Amy’s musical genius, it is as salacious and cruel as any tabloid cutting from the noughties – only invested in the bloody ballet pump left in the street, not the complexities of living a very public life with addiction.”

Rogan Graham

Many audiences have protested against the making and release of the film, arguing the biopic sensationalizes the trauma and struggle of Amy. Many have expressed their distaste, arguing the biopic was “unnecessary”, and portrays Winehouse to be characterized by her addiction and struggle.

Credit: Twitter/@who_tf_is_lou

A Celebration of Amy’s Life and Legacy?

Despite the proliferation of negative reviews surrounding Back to Black, many have applauded Marisa Abela for her authentic performance of Amy Winehouse. Sam Taylor-Johnson revealed that during casting, she wasn’t searching for somebody to mimic Amy’s vocals. Rather, she wanted “someone who could embody and bring to life the essence of who Amy was“.

Interviews with director Sam Taylor-Johnson revealed that Marisa Abela trained for months, learning to play guitar, sing like Winehouse, and physically get into shape for the role.

The film was approved by Amy’s family, with both of her parents frequently visiting the set. The film also received support from the Winehouse estate.

Despite the film’s negative press, it is clear that it was made with passion to accurately represent Amy’s life and celebrate her legacy.

Where to Watch Back to Black

Back to Black is currently showing in UK cinemas, the film will launch in the USA on May 17th, and in select cinemas worldwide. Audiences should decide for themselves whether the biopic is an authentic celebration of Winehouse, or if it crosses boundaries of exploitation.

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Hello! My name is Rachel, I'm from Manchester and I'm a Journalism student at Cardiff University! I love writing anything related to popular culture and entertainment.

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