A big budget Hollywood film is being made about the singer just four years after her death
Last week, it was announced that a new Amy Winehouse biopic was in the works, with acclaimed director Kirsten Sheridan writing, directing an overseeing the entire project. This comes only a few months after Asif Kapadia’s heart-breaking (and controversial) portrayal Amy, and both come just four years after she passed away from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27.
However, unlike Amy, a documentary made up of startlingly intimate raw footage of the singer, with verbal accounts from her friends and family, the film will be a scripted Hollywood production of re-enacted events, and an actress who has probably never met the singer will be playing her. And while these kinds of portrayals have been done many times with grace in the past (Ian Curtis in Control, Kurt Cobain in Last Days, Johnny Cash in Walk The Line), something about a big budget Amy Winehouse production leaves a particularly bitter taste in the mouth.
It has become a cliché to say so, but Winehouse was an astoundingly unique kind of singer; the kind that only comes around once every few decades. With her Marlboro and cognac voice, original jazz predications and sharp-witted charisma, the singer appeared magnetic even when she wasn’t on top form, and her quick-fire rise to fame seemed inevitable. Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) who was a close friend of Winehouse, described her beautifully when he said, “She was fast with a blue joke, could drink anyone under the table and she sure could roll a smoke. She had a giant big laugh. She was a sweetheart.” Arguably, a film would be a way of celebrating such a talent. So why does it feel so utterly wrong?
One simple answer is this: it feels too soon. Only a handful of summers ago, you might have found Winehouse down the Good Mixer in Camden; a pint in one hand, a pool cue in the other. Despite her ever-pervasive fame, she was known to still spend time in North London with friends. Now, while her friends are still there, she is not – instead, there are statues and murals of the singer dotted around buildings. News of her tragic death still feels raw. If you walk around Camden now, it seems to hang in the air.
What makes film biopics like James Mangold’s Walk The Line (a film about the life of Johnny Cash) work, is that viewers have had time to process, and look back on a different era with hindsight. We are transformed to 1960s Arkansas, or, as in Anton Corbijn’s Control, 1970s England. However, an Amy Winehouse film would leave no room for hindsight. We have nowhere to look back on but the present day with a kind of perverse horror. There is no separate context, because the context is right now.
It’s also worth mentioning that the biopic has received no backing or support from the Winehouse family. Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, recently tweeted that he was not even aware that it was happening. “I don't know anything about this biopic. I don't know who actress is. Usual showbiz B S.” He then added, “READ MY LIPS. THIS BIOPIC WILL NOT HAPPEN. MITCH” It seems strange that the film would go ahead without permission or consultation from her family members and close friends.
READ MY LIPS. THIS BIOPIC WILL NOT HAPPEN. MITCH— mitch winehouse (@mitchwinehouse) November 7, 2015
As well as this, Winehouse spent the last few years of life battling a very public addiction to drugs and alcohol. Without meaning to sound cynical, authentic portrayals of addiction are hard to come by, particularly in such a real, biographical sense. And although drugs have been explored brilliantly in films before, the thought of an actor pretending to be Winehouse at the height of her drug use feels instinctively in bad taste. Granted, the film hasn’t been made yet, so it’s hard to make a judgement call. Perhaps it won’t focus on her addictions, and instead focus only on her music. But how can Amy Winehouse’s story be told properly without mentioning her drug use? And how can her drug use be portrayed in a way that is not grossly off-the-mark?
Even if the film is created sensitively and with authenticity, one important question remains – why? What would anybody gain from another Amy Winehouse film? In a statement, director Kristen Sheridan explained: “Amy’s music is felt so deeply by the audience because it was deeply personal. Her vulnerability was her strength. She was called many things — a diva, a lost soul preyed upon by tabloids, a tortured genius; our aim is an innovative, emotional and life-affirming approach as we go through the looking glass into her life and art.”
“To shine the spotlight even more closely now feels not just unnecessary but almost unethical”
This would make more sense if we hadn’t peered through the “looking glass into her life and art” countless times before. Whether through her two exceptional albums Frank and Back to Black, through the never-ending onslaught of tabloid press at the time, or through Kapadia’s Amy, a documentary that couldn’t be more intimate if it tried. With Winehouse, no stone has been left unturned. She was continuously scrutinised while she was alive, and this has continued after her death. To shine the spotlight even more closely now feels not just unnecessary but almost unethical.
Last week, Hollywood’s Lotus Entertainment introduced the untitled Amy Winehouse film to foreign buyers gathered at the American film market in Santa Monica. Talks are also underway with Universal and Sony to obtain music rights. The cogs are in motion to decide who will be in charge of what, and ultimately, who will be receiving the most money. And while art has always been a business, and arguably needs to be in order to sustain itself, it’s hard to shake the fact that people are capitalising off Amy Winehouse in the same way they always have done, even after her death.
Maybe the film will perfectly capture the singer’s spirit and legacy, and maybe the film will introduce younger generations to her art, and maybe it’s what she would have wanted. But when Amy Winehouse’s “story” was told in such a poetic and effortless way through her unfettered, razor-sharp lyrics and straight-from-the-heart music, there seems little need for anything else. Surely nobody needs tell her story, because she already did it so beautifully herself.