New Amy Winehouse movie is latest music biopic to make this mistake.

New Amy Winehouse movie is latest music biopic to make this mistake.

Any biographical movie—”biopic,” in the popular shorthand—has one question it must answer about its subject well before the cameras start rolling: Why do we care about this person? Biopics of musicians, especially beloved ones, don’t usually have to work very hard to answer this. Anyone with a pulse will hear “Lively Up Yourself” or “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Cold Sweat” or “Somebody to Love,” and will probably be more than game to spend a couple hours with the people who made them. In fact, one reason that so many musician biopics are so disappointing is that they rarely bother to provide more than a puddle-shallow narrative whose function is to get the film’s soundtrack from one crowd-pleasing needle drop to the next.

Back to Black, the new biopic of the late British singer Amy Winehouse, is a terrible movie, an inept catastrophe that manages to make the recent and mostly godawful Bob Marley: One Love look like the 11th chapter of the Dekalog in comparison. It’s tonally incoherent, switching between a meet-cute rom-com and a harrowing addiction drama seemingly one minute to the next, while evincing a near-hostile lack of interest in any exploration of creativity or craft. It depicts Winehouse as entirely in thrall to various men in her life—all of whom the film strangely beatifies—and devotes an offensive amount of attention to her thwarted desire to become a mum. Its character development is quite literally skin-deep, limited to an endless parade of close-up shots of people getting tattoos, each of which is freighted with significance.

And yet none of these flaws are even close to the film’s biggest. Back to Black stars Marisa Abela as Winehouse, best known for her role in the HBO series Industry. A few months before the movie came out, a promotional clip of Abela singing as Winehouse went viral, and certainly not in the way the studio was hoping. This was unfortunate and not entirely fair to Abela, who’s not as bad as the clip seemed to indicate. As a singer, she’s roughly the quality of an eager, aspiring amateur, just good enough to make it on to American Idol but not good enough to make it out of the middle rounds.

Jennifer Hudson is a world-class vocalist, but she is not Aretha Franklin, because no one is Aretha Franklin.

The problem—and it’s a really, really big problem—is that she’s playing Amy Winehouse, and even the most hardened Winehouse agnostic would concede that, chops-wise, Winehouse was working with a hell of a lot more than that. Casting a just-fine vocalist to play one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation isn’t just a basic failure of storytelling, it also commits the bizarre and unforced error of depriving its audience of the one facet of Winehouse’s story that makes her so compelling. Yes, Amy Winehouse lived a tumultuous and self-destructive life, which the film dutifully rehashes, but anyone can do that. Only one person could sing like her. And yet, instead of simply using Winehouse’s own voice, the filmmakers have subjected us to two hours’ worth of modestly competent karaoke performances. It’s a choice that fundamentally misunderstands why so many people care about Amy Winehouse, the very people who are presumably the audience for this movie.

Musician biopics have been a reliably lucrative genre in the 21st century. The subjects of these movies usually have robust discographies, and advances in audio technology have made extracting voices from even old or relatively poor-quality recordings and convincingly transporting them into films easier than ever. And yet the practice of having actors submit flimsy imitations of these singers in pursuit of critical plaudits and awards-night glory endures. It’s never a good idea, even in what’s otherwise a pretty good movie: The Elton John jukebox biopic Rocketman was a fun and refreshingly inventive entry into the genre that nonetheless made the indefensible decision to have its star, Taron Egerton, do his own singing instead of just using Sir Elton’s indelible tenor. It’s not a good idea even when you have a truly great singer in your lead role: Jennifer Hudson is a world-class vocalist, but she is not Aretha Franklin, because no one is Aretha Franklin—that’s what made her Aretha Franklin.

People have been making movies about famous musicians since before movies even had sound, and actors have been winning Oscars for playing them for longer than LPs have been around. (James Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic musical of George M. Cohan.) But I associate the dawn of our current age of the glossy, prestige-oriented musician biopic with a pair of movies that are now almost 20 years old: 2004’s Ray and 2005’s Walk the Line, which took on Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, respectively. Both movies were box-office successes, each benefiting from the stores of popular goodwill toward each musical titan in the wake of his recent passing. (Cash had died in 2003, and Charles in 2004, just months before the premiere of Ray.) Perhaps most importantly, both films performed swimmingly during awards season: Ray scored a Best Actor Oscar for star Jamie Foxx while also securing nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and several other prizes; Walk the Line won Reese Witherspoon a Best Actress statue for her portrayal of June Carter and garnered Joaquin Phoenix his first Best Actor nomination.

Ray is a surprisingly decent movie as these things go. Director Taylor Hackford knew his way around making a music movie, Foxx is superb as Charles, and the film boasts a terrific supporting cast, including Kerry Washington as Ray’s wife, Della Bea Robinson, and Regina King as Margie Hendrix, the legendary Raelette. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch—a groan-inducing scene in which Charles hears a distant hummingbird batting its wings like he’s a member of the X-Men remains unfortunately seared into my memory—but if Ray’s quality was the median rather than the exception for musician biopics, the genre would be in a far better place. Walk the Line, on the other hand, is not a very good movie. Phoenix’s twitchy overacting quickly becomes a chore to watch, and the film churns out so many clichés that two years after its release it became the primary target of the far-superior parody film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. (In a better and smarter alternative universe, Walk Hard would have single-handedly euthanized this entire cursed genre.)

Despite the fact that Foxx is himself an excellent singer (and a fairly passable Charles impressionist), Ray’s filmmakers chose to have Foxx lip-sync to recordings of Charles’ own voice, and it’s hard to overstate how much that decision works to the film’s benefit. Whatever mild awkwardness might have come from watching Foxx pantomime his singing is instantly erased by the goosebumps-inducing power of Charles’ own voice, which, each time it bursts forth from the soundtrack, reminds us exactly why we’re all watching this movie to begin with.

Walk the Line took the opposite tack, and featured Phoenix and Witherspoon—competent if hardly professional-grade singers—doing impersonations of Cash and Carter, seemingly (to my ears at least) helped along with generous uses of digital pitch correction. In the 19 years since I first saw Walk the Line in theaters, I’ve remained completely baffled by this choice. Why make a movie about Johnny Cash and June Carter that deliberately withholds the reason anyone anywhere cares about them, namely the music that they recorded? Neither Witherspoon nor Phoenix even had significant singing experience prior to being cast in the roles. It’s like making a movie about Michael Jordan where all the basketball sequences are composed from footage shot at pickup games at the local Y.

And yet these movies keep doing this, with Back to Black merely the latest offender. What motivates this decision? A cynical answer would be actorly vanity, the idea that a movie star proving that he or she can “really sing” is a surefire ticket to fawning reviews and even an Oscar. (This has been proven true as recently as 2020, when Renée Zellweger won Best Actress for the otherwise forgettable Judy Garland biopic Judy.) A more charitable answer would be the pursuit of a certain verisimilitude. Lip-syncing can be distractingly unrealistic, especially when done poorly, and there can be a physicality and immediacy manifested by “real” singing.

But if the motivation is indeed realism, it seems fatally misguided. For starters, even when actors do their own singing, the vocals that we hear are rarely recorded “live” on set, and in the case of a film like Walk the Line, hearing voices recorded in a digital format with all of its attendant technological advantages commits its own glaring anachronism in a movie mostly depicting recordings put on wax in the 1950s and 1960s. But more to the point, if you’re pursuing realism in a movie about Amy Winehouse, shouldn’t your primary goal be making sure your Amy Winehouse actually sounds like Amy Winehouse?

The voice is a powerful and mysterious thing, maybe the most primal creative instrument that human beings possess. We’re drawn to great singers because of the intricacies and capacities of that instrument and its connection to actual, singular people. One reason so many people found a certain rapper recently using an A.I.-generated clone of the late Tupac Shakur to be so offensive is that Tupac was so much more than a collection of aesthetic qualities and sonic mannerisms, and reducing him to those qualities and mannerisms, however precisely, feels both anti-art and anti-human. Asking an actor, no matter how skilled, to simply remake the music of a legendary singer is asking for an act of mimicry that similarly misunderstands what made that singer great in the first place. Whether it’s Johnny Cash or Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin or Amy Winehouse: The whole reason we love these artists is that they never sang like anyone other than themselves.

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