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‘Back to Black’: Fact-Checking the Amy Winehouse Biopic

The short, tragic life of Amy Winehouse has been chronicled in a documentary (Asif Kapadia’s Amy), numerous unofficial biographies, memoirs by her father (Amy, My Daughter), her mother (Loving Amy: A Mother’s Story), close friend Tyler James (My Amy: The Life We Shared), podcasts, and even graphic novels. And in the wake of shockingly successful biopics about Queen, Elton John, Mötley Crüe, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, and Bob Marley, the only surprising thing about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black, which stars Marisa Abela as Winehouse, is that it took so long to come into being.

Early reviews have been somewhat mixed, to put it charitably. But we’re not here to talk about the quality of the film. Our purpose is to compare the events on the screen to the known historical record of Winehouse’s life. And even though nothing compares to the whoppers in Bohemian Rhapsody, the fantasy sequences in Rocketman that veered far outside the realm of truth, or the scene in The Dirt where they break the fourth wall by acknowledging that Mötley Crüe’s co-manager has been erased from the narrative, there are still many moments where the filmmakers play fast and loose with the truth for dramatic purposes.

The film focuses largely on Winehouse’s tumultuous relationship with husband Blake Fielder-Civil, and his role in inspiring many of her most beloved songs. But that story takes up so much screen time that other aspects of her life and career were cut down to the bone. Canadian actor Jeff Tunke was originally cast as Back to Black co-producer Mark Ronson, but his scenes were ultimately excised. Ronson is only briefly mentioned on two occasions. It’s a surprising storytelling choice considering his crucial role in her saga, but there’s nothing factually incorrect about cutting him out. Here are nine onscreen moments, however, that don’t line up with fact. Be warned: There are spoilers galore. It’s best to read this after seeing the movie.

Winehouse’s grandmother wasn’t responsible for her beehive hairstyle.
As the movie correctly shows, Winehouse was extremely close to her paternal grandmother, Cynthia Winehouse. The elder Winehouse was a successful jazz singer in her youth, and her role in teaching Amy about vintage music was as formative as the movie suggests. But it goes a bit far when it also credits her with first shaping her granddaughter’s ‘do into the Ronnie Spector-esque beehive style that became her signature. Winehouse actually created that look as a 17-year-old alongside hairstylist Tracey Cahoon.

Fielder-Civil didn’t introduce her to the Shangri-Las.
In one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, Winehouse meets Blake Fielder-Civil at a pub, and is instantly smitten. This plays out pretty accurately until he puts “Leader of the Pack” on the jukebox, and prances around a pool table as he sings along to it. Movie Amy had never heard of them. “Only the best Sixties girl band ever!” he tells her. “All like excitement, atmosphere…how can I put this? Emotional turbulence.”

She becomes a big fan, and the 1966 Shangri-Las deep cut “Dressed in Black” plays later when she first has sex with Fielder-Civil. It works well, since Fielder-Civil is like a bad boy straight out of a Shangri-Las song, and she’s like one of their tragic heroines. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that Fielder-Civil introduced her to the group. It’s a complete fiction that gives him too much credit.

He did, however, introduce Winehouse to crack and heroin.
Fielder-Civil has admitted several times over the years that he turned Winehouse on to crack and heroin. In the movie, she turns to hard drugs on her own while dealing with the grief of her mother’s death and the tumult of her relationship with Fielder-Civil.

Winehouse separated from Fielder-Civil in 2009.
Movie Amy visits Fielder-Civil in prison shortly after her Glastonbury set. She’s ecstatic to see him, but he devastates her by saying they need to get divorced. “I’ve had a moment of clarity, as they say,” he says. “We can’t be together. I want a divorce. A counselor in here told me what we are is toxic co-dependents. We compete to fuck ourselves up and make the other one feel like shit by ‘anything you do, I can do better’ type-thing like drugs and self harm… We’re drug addicts, Amy.” It’s hard to imagine real-life Fielder-Civil stating their situation in such frank terms, but the real issue here is the timeline: Their breakup took place about a year later.

Winehouse’s real life Glastonbury set was even more chaotic than depicted.
The singer’s chaotic 2008 Glastonbury set is a major moment in the film. They skip over many of her infamous rants (“Imagine if I was a c–t like Kanye West”), but she is shown jumping over barriers and interacting with fans during “Me & Mr. Jones.” It cuts away before the finale of “Rehab” when she elbowed someone in the audience who allegedly groped her breast.

The Glastonbury show also took place after the Grammys.
Winehouse’s hot mess of a Glastonbury set was June 28, 2008. She won the Grammy for Album of the Year on Feb. 10, 2008. The movie presents these events in reverse order to give her a triumph near the end of the story.

She thanked “Blake Incarcerated” at the Grammys.
The movie goes to remarkable lengths to recreate Winehouse’s remote performance of “Rehab” at the 2008 Grammy Awards along with her acceptance speech, getting tiny details of her dress and jewelry exactly right. But since they moved the timeline of her breakup with Fielder-Civil from 2009 to sometime in 2007 or early 2008, they had to cut out the part of the speech where she thanked “My Blake, My Blake Incarcerated.” The unique turn of phrase is the most memorable part of the speech, and it’s bizarre to hear it delivered without those lines.

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Fielder-Civil wasn’t Winehouse’s only love.
For understandable reasons, Fielder-Civil is Winehouse’s only love interest to get any significant screen time. That’s because their relationship spanned the most noteworthy years of Winehouse’s life, he inspired many of her most beloved songs, and the whole thing played out daily in the tabloids. He’s also the only one she married. But Winehouse dated songwriter Alex Clare, actor Josh Bowman, and director Reg Traviss too. She even had a brief fling with Pete Doherty. The movie makes it seem like Fielder-Civil was the only man she ever loved — that’s simply not true.

Her sad, final years are glossed over,
The last three years of Winehouse’s life were a difficult time marked by sad, sloppy concerts, endless tabloid stories of her drug abuse, and a complete lack of any new music. The movie skips over all of this, and simply ends at some vague moment in time, after she’s added white streaks into her hair, when she’s poring over old photographs at her home. She fires up “Leader of the Pack” on a jukebox, wipes away a tear, looks down at the Blake tattoo on her chest, and sings an a cappella rendition of “Tears Dry On Their Own,” before disappearing up a white staircase. A title card reveals the date of Winehouse’s death, but doesn’t get into any detail. That’s probably for the best.

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