12 January 2024

‘Back to Black’ and the uncomfortable ethics of the music biopic

The trailer for an Amy Winehouse biopic just dropped. But haven’t we had enough of the genre yet? 

Yesterday, the first trailer for Back to Black was released. Starring Industry’s Marisa Abela as the indomitable London jazz singer, it’s a film that’s attracted controversy since the first utterances of its existence back in 2022. Back to Black has dredged up difficult conversations around whether it’s all that altruistic to cash in on someone else’s life, and highlighted the broader roster of issues with a genre that we seemingly can’t get enough of. 

The music biopic is a favourite amongst fans and critics alike. Taking on a leading role in a biopic that allows you to painstakingly mimic the smallest micro-expressions of some of the biggest cultural icons is a sure fire way to garner you praise and a coveted Oscar nom. Case in point? Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, Austin Butler in Elvis, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, and Jamie Foxx in Ray. Much like war films and historical epics, music biopics are often thought of as “Oscar bait”. I mean, why else would Bradley Cooper have made Maestro?

Their potential for some YouTuber to make a side-by-side video to compare an actor’s performance with the real thing aside, music biopics are often… bad. They’re so formulaic, in fact, that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story did a pretty good job at parodying the predictable narrative tenets of the vast majority of films found within the genre. But it apparently didn’t have a huge effect on all the Hollywood-ites putting these kinds of flicks together: Elvis and Bohemian Rhapsody were released upon the masses chock-full of the cliches Walk Hard suggested we might need to leave in the past, with the performances from Butler and Malek – all false teeth and fat suits – helping to obscure that. And though we can’t say for sure, it’s likely that Back to Black will be more of the same. 

One thing that does make Back to Black a little more redeemable is that it’s being made with the blessing of Winehouse’s estate. For viewers, that will mean hearing a lot of Winehouse’s music in the film and, most importantly, a semblance of respect for the late singer. Surprisingly, it isn’t always the case that those behind music biopics do get this kind of permission. Stardust, the 2020 film which saw actor Johnny Flynn take on the role of David Bowie, was not approved by Bowie’s estate. Not only did those behind Stardust not have permission to use any of Bowie’s music, but in going against the wishes of his family, it was boycotted and subsequently flopped… Really, this is likely the fate that Stardust deserved. 

Still, getting the “blessing” or “support” from whomever the film is depicting doesn’t mean these flicks cease to exist in a moral grey area. There’s a much bigger question at hand: is it ever okay to depict the lives of people who, at least most of the time, can’t consent to it? For many, that crosses a line and becomes exploitation. In the case of Back to Black, that feels especially true. When Winehouse tragically passed at the young age of 27, she’d spent the last years of her life being hounded by vulture-like press. In this sense, it’s arguable whether Back to Black is a display of respect and admiration, or simply a crass continuation of how she was preyed upon by both the media. In Asif Kapadia’s touching and subtle documentary Amy, the director even advances the idea that Winehouse’s father Mitch played an integral role in the exploitation of the singer. Unsurprisingly, it’s Mitch that manages his daughter’s estate, and is responsible for giving Back to Black its blessing. 

So, are there any biopics that are worth a watch? While it’s downright impossible to find one completely untethered from all these complex ethical dilemmas, there’s at least a fair few that try to be a little exciting in the way they tell these stories. Todd Haynes offers up some inspired casting in I’m Not There, with multiple actors – including Cate Blanchett – taking on different iterations of singer Bob Dylan. Control, which depicts the life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, makes some interesting stylistic choices, and something like Rocketman, about Elton John, feels like a markedly more joyous take on the genre. And even though they’re not music biopics per se, both Pablo Larrain’s Spencer and Jackie, focusing on Princess Diana and Jackie Onassis respectively, feel like a lesson in how to create a mood piece around someone’s life as opposed to a straight play-by-play.

More than not, though, music biopics come in the form of dull films that leave you with a rather bad taste. While we wholeheartedly hope that Back to Black will offer a sensitive take on Winehouse, we’re not entirely sure that’s possible. 

  • Writer Amber Rawlings
  • Banner Image Credit Back to Black / Monumental Pictures

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