As ‘Back to Black’ Explores Amy Winehouse’s Turbulent Life, Her Timeless Music Remains at the Centre of Her Legacy

Amy Winehouse

A new biopic about British soul singer Amy Winehouse, 'Back in Black,' arrives thanks to continued cultural interest driven by the soap operatics of the singer's life. Photo: Bryan Adams/Trunk Archive

When Amy Winehouse crossed the pond to Austin, Texas, for the South-by-Southwest music festival in March 2007 – a shining, shambolic soon-to-be superstar and not-yet-tragic hero – the concept of time dissipated in her wake. 

Buzzed at the ultra-hip festival as the future of music, the beehived British soul singer seemed to have emerged from an Atomic Age time machine, heavily influenced by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, the Ronettes and all things Motown. But her plentiful tattoos, Ghostface Killah remix and foreshadowing lyrics of booze, blow and Rehab revealed the post-millennial tension between Amy and her throwback muses.

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse at the 2007 MTV Europe Awards. Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/
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When she finally, tipsily, went onstage well past 1 a.m., backed by her eight-piece Brooklyn band, the Dap-Kings, she was messy and mesmerizing. Those of us lucky enough to be inside the 600-capacity 6th Street bar – while hundreds still waited in line outside – bore witness more than watched, as if this incredible late-night display of pain-streaked talent was a pivotal scene
in a biopic. Even the club’s name – Eternal – could’ve been conceived by a screenwriter nodding toward our enduring fascination with the anachronistic artist, whose death by alcohol poisoning came just four years later at age 27.

Now, as Winehouse’s iconic song, album and, yes, new biopic put it, she’s Back to Black (May 17). The movie, starring Industry’s Marisa Abela, is directed by Amy’s friend and fellow South Londoner, Sam Taylor-Johnson – best known for the films Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon’s childhood, and 50 Shades of Grey – and penned by Matt Greenhalgh, who also wrote Control, a biopic of another gone-too-soon U.K. icon, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.

Sanctioned by Winehouse’s family but, according to the director, without final approval on content, Back to Black arrives on the heels of a pair of duelling documentaries. The 2015 Oscar-winning Amy famously portrayed father Mitch in a negative light while the also-acclaimed 2021 Reclaiming Amy, narrated by mom Janis, told the parents’ perspective, including grainy home video of the then-high schooler playing Rizzo in a 1994 production of Grease – which is as perfect as you’re imagining.

Much of this continued cultural interest is driven by the soap operatics of Winehouse’s life, not least her star-crossed, drug-crazed romance with Blake Fielder-Civil, portrayed by Jack O’Connell (Skins). The pair’s tumultuous, tabloid-ready relationship provides the narrative thrust of the new film just like it inspired the lyrics on her legendary album. Fielder-Civil was, after all, the guy she met in the “bar downstairs” with his “rolled-up sleeves in his skull T-shirt.”

Photo: BFA/Focus Features/Alamy


But as much as the movie focuses on the love story “behind the lyrics” – and as much as some fans fear it furthers the exploitation that doomed the troubled singer – Amy’s real story will always be that despite it all she realized her dream. She made music that was timeless. 

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue with the headline “Chasing Amy,” p. 22.


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