It’s a grotesque insult for Back to Black to suggest Amy Winehouse died of heartache over her childlessness | Laura Snapes

Estimated read time 6 min read

Anyone who saw Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy is well aware of the injustices faced by Amy Winehouse during her 27 years of life. She endured addiction to alcohol and drugs, as well as bulimia, depression and self-harm. In Blake Fielder-Civil, she married a fame-hungry leech who has said he got her into crack and heroin. (“Of course I regret it,” he later said.) Her father, Mitch Winehouse, is depicted (in a portrayal he disputes) as absent until she finds success; as the song goes, he agreed with his daughter that she didn’t need to go to rehab when her first manager, Nick Shymansky, stressed that she definitely did, and trailed her with a camera crew when she was finding calm away from the UK’s vicious tabloid media in St Lucia. The film suggests that promoter turned manager Raye Cosbert put a barely conscious Winehouse on a plane taking her to her disastrous final date in Belgrade in June 2011, a month prior to her death from alcohol poisoning. Of course, the humiliations of that performance and many others like it were hers alone to weather.

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s shallow new biopic, Back to Black, is the latest injustice meted out to Winehouse. It is a regressive retreat to damaging tropes with a focus on her self-destruction that handily exonerates everyone surrounding her – bar the convenient bogeymen of swarming paparazzi and Clueless Men From The Record Label Telling Her What To Do, who the director can count on any faintly Britney-literate viewer to understand as The Bad Guys – and it undoes much of the work done to establish a fair and de-sensationalised understanding of the singer since her death. It is voyeuristic about her pain, revelling in actor Marisa Abela’s shocking thinness and scenes of her stumbling through Camden with those grimly famous bloodied ballet pumps, with portentous attempts at symbolism – what could this caged songbird mean?! How about this fox she sees while crying on the pavement?! – yet makes no authentic attempt to understand where that pain stemmed from.

Instead, Back to Black suggests a tenuous truth as the source of Winehouse’s torment, centring the idea that she was desperate to have a baby and that her inability to conceive was what killed her. In 2007, she told Rolling Stone that one day she might move away from music to focus on domestic life: “I was put here to be a wife and a mum and look after my family.” That’s the sum total of those desires in her own words. There are tabloid reports of “sources” claiming she wanted a child. During her lifetime, Mitch once said she had become “broody”; after her death and the release of Kapadia’s documentary, he claimed she “thought she was pregnant at some stage” when she was engaged to film director Reg Traviss at the end of her life. Fielder-Civil’s wife Georgette claimed Winehouse wanted a child with him despite him being in jail. (For a reminder of the times, note a 2010 Mirror gossip item on these rumours that begins: “Social Services at the ready.”)

Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil in 2007.View image in fullscreen

Despite this impoverished “evidence”, Winehouse’s supposed desperate maternal yearning constitutes the thrust of Back to Black – far more so than any scenes of her working on music. One of the few carefree scenes shows her and Fielder-Civil going on their first proper date after meeting at Camden’s Good Mixer pub. To a soundtrack of the Libertines’ Don’t Look Back Into the Sun, they head to London Zoo and flirt by the lion enclosure. Fielder-Civil repeatedly points out the lioness, which seems like a conspicuous reminder to viewers to stream the sole posthumous Winehouse collection, Lioness. The zoo’s matriarch has six cubs. “That’s how many I want, that OK with you?” Winehouse asks Fielder-Civil, then strokes her tiny tummy to tease him. “Did I not tell you? Mazel tov!” Later, a little girl asks a drunk Winehouse for her autograph in the offie. Winehouse coos, “I wish I was your mum,” then tells the man selling her vodka and cigarettes, “one day, Jimmy, one day”. The paps hound her and Fielder-Civil to a pharmacy, then they go home to do a pregnancy test. When it’s negative, Winehouse, crouched on the bathroom floor, weeps and hits herself on the head.

The notion that two drug addicts who were in the state of the real-life couple could be actively trying to have a baby stretches belief; not to mention the fact that Winehouse’s bulimia – clumsily telegraphed by scenes of her eating cake one minute, then exiting the bathroom the next – would probably have stopped her periods, making it impossible to conceive at such a low body weight. Moreover, the idea that Winehouse’s highly specific intersection of chemical, psychological and social problems can be boiled down to her supposed inability to become a mother is a rank gendered simplification. Here is one of the greatest artists of the 21st century, who wrote such sexual, bawdy, lacerating songs about womanhood, being sanitised by a narrative of legible female pain: never mind trying to make sense of all that messy business, let us soothe our consciences with the banality of her craving a baby.

Attempting to make an extraordinary woman who was the victim of extraordinary circumstance tragically relatable in this way is an insult to Winehouse’s complexity and to the imperative of remembering all the factors that contributed to her demise. It’s an insult that Back to Black deepens with its conclusion: it ends with Winehouse, now clean and divorced, waving her dad off outside her brand-new house. As she heads indoors, a pap provokes her by asking if she has any message for Fielder-Civil’s new girlfriend “and their new baby”. Distraught, she goes upstairs and sings to herself in the mirror of an empty pink room (I suspect this may be another of Taylor-Johnson’s clever visual metaphors). Then the film ends, cutting to black and stating that Winehouse died on 23 July 2011 from alcohol poisoning following a period of sobriety. No final disastrous performances, no mention of Traviss, nor any connection between her eating disorder and her death; but a heavy implication of causality with Fielder-Civil’s news that suggests the ultimate self-inflicted wound.

It renders Winehouse a barren void, reducing her lost potential to that of failing to fulfil her feminine duty rather than that of more life, more art and the peace she so sorely deserved. Somehow, Taylor-Johnson has imagined an even more miserable fate for a young woman whose life already resembled a horror story.


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