When Your Life Becomes a Paycheck: On the Upcoming Amy Winehouse Movie

Wednesday Journal Entry, Week 25 ½

February 1st 2023 – Karina Lafayette

I don’t think I knew what depression was. I know I felt funny sometimes and I was different. I think it’s a musician thing. That’s why I write.

Amy Winehouse

We’re all familiar with the story. A young artist with big dreams pursues a career in entertainment. Eventually, they make it big and thus their Cinderella story unfolds. Along the way, they get the accolades, the awards, the recognition, and the chance to tour and perform with everyone they once only idolized. The fans love them. The press hounds them. The family is rolling in cash. Everyone is happy, except for the artist in question.

Fast forward to years later, where their life is cut short by a string of scandals, bullying from the media, addiction, mental health issues, and the unwavering feeling that almost everyone who’s ever been around just wanted a piece of their success. The names might change, but the story remains the same. And now Back to Black, the upcoming biopic about Amy Winehouse that’s currently in production, is going to attempt to continue exploiting the late singer as if she didn’t already go through enough already. Of course, it’s only in its early days of filming, and who am I to judge a movie before seeing it, right? Actually, considering Amy’s history, not to mention how Hollywood is notorious for making exploitative biopics (most recently with Blonde and the Pam and Tommy series), this clearly isn’t going to turn out well.

I mean, really:

We see it over and over. When someone is struggling with their mental health or with addiction, people will laugh, make jokes, and even encourage them. Sure, it’s near impossible to actually convince someone to go to rehab, but what’s not impossible is canceling a whole tour the minute a problem becomes apparent. It isn’t, after all, the performer who’s in charge of booking the tour anyway, a whole team is responsible for that.

In his book The Heroin Diaries, Nikki Sixx talks about sometimes barely being able to function in the studio during his years doing drugs, and how he felt disturbed that no one seemed to care enough to stop recording sessions where he was clearly unwell. It’s also worth mentioning that Nikki is the main songwriter on most Motley Crue albums, meaning he brought in a lot of the profit. But the issue isn’t only when a situation involves addiction. Singer Halsey once spoke about how they were expected to do a concert within hours after having a miscarriage. Meanwhile, just last year, singer Anne-Marie was praised for “soldiering on” despite falling mid-performance at the Brit Awards.

Sure for Anne-Marie, she was able to joke about her fall, but in a capitalist society, it’s expected that people are treated like machines. A musician could be sick to the point of being unable to walk, and somehow their team and management will find a way to get them onstage as long as they can still hold a note or play their instrument. Instead of making their well-being a priority, we say, “The show must go on”. It’s all about the money.

In the documentary Amy, which came out in 2015, we see there were times where Amy Winehouse needed love and healing, and all she got was the push to perform instead. Growing up, she was mostly surrounded by her mother, extended family, and friends. Meanwhile her father wasn’t really in the picture after him and her mother separated- that is, till she got famous. We hear Amy saying, “when my dad was there, he was never there.” What’s beautiful about this project is it feels intimate, as if she really is telling her story. It isn’t clear if it was a matter of people being bystanders to her struggles later on, but what is clear is that not enough was done to steer her in the right direction. Rather in one instance, a stint in rehab had been allegedly rushed so that way her entourage and management could get Amy ready for the next tour.

Amy went on to win an Oscar, and to be fair did seem to do a decent job bringing some justice to an otherwise unfair life. The other documentary Reclaiming Amy on the other hand, was produced by her parents and felt more like an attempt to correct their reputation, and while it’s understandable that they’d want to do so, do we really need that many projects about her life? Has anyone considered that maybe, she would’ve wanted some privacy?

As someone who’s worked in the shelter system and has had clients who struggled with addiction, Amy’s situation could’ve been handled differently. For one, as counterintuitive as it sounds, the last thing you want to do is tell a person to stop using. However, enabling behavior can be just as harmful. Not only that, you should never shame them, and both media and many famous people did just that. One example is comedian George Lopez presenting the Grammy nominations, where he made a joke about how “someone should wake up Amy Winehouse to let her know” that she was nominated. Another example is the Youtube channel The Young Turks, which made countless videos bullying Amy. While you can’t just blame a specific person for what happened, what addicts need more than anything is community care.

However, when you’re surrounded by people who are all about business and who make you feel like your value lies in getting their validation, making profit, and proving that you have a good work ethic, sobriety is very difficult. And the issue isn’t only limited to famous people, anyone who has a job or career will tell you how many times they’ve been expected to show up to work even when in the worst shape of their life, because according to bosses, people are disposable.

In one of her most famous songs “Rehab”, Amy sings the line “if my daddy thinks I’m fine”. For someone who’s not familiar with Amy’s story, they’d assume that line to be a sarcasm or even a joke, but it definitely wasn’t. She did in fact ask him his thoughts on rehab. If anything, that line reflects the amount of passivity toward mental health struggles and addiction, and with the cheerful vibe of that song, it’s easy to overlook the deeper meaning. The myth of the tortured artist certainly doesn’t help either.

A lot of us seem to be under the impression that suffering is necessary in order to create, and that it isn’t possible for anyone who’s an artist to lead a happy life. This is probably why Hollywood takes so much liberty in making biopics without thinking twice about whether the person even wants their story told in the first place, regardless of how much sadness and trauma they went through. Because a celebrity is not seen as a person to begin with, they’re seen as a paycheck.

Considering the number of times Amy was filmed running from paparazzi, I doubt a biopic would make her happy. Especially considering that she was after all a Capricorn moon, and despite being outgoing, all she really wanted was a quiet life. It might sound contradictory to the personal lyrics in her songs, but believe or not, an artist can share parts of themselves and still have boundaries. Since the time she passed away, her father Mitch has written a book, co-produced the documentary Reclaiming Amy alongside her mother Janis, had a failed attempt at a hologram tour, and now most recently there’s a biopic being made about her.

The biopic Back to Black, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, hasn’t even wrapped filming yet and already looks like something produced for the Lifetime channel. When addressing complaints about how actress Marisa Abela, who’s playing Amy onscreen, looks nothing like her, Mitch stated:

“Marisa’s a great choice for the role, even if she doesn’t look exactly like Amy. Eddie Marsan doesn’t look like me either. There’s plenty of Hollywood examples of actors not looking like their real-life characters.”


But the fact that Marisa doesn’t resemble Amy isn’t the issue- Angela Bassett barely resembles Tina Turner and still embodied her in What’s Love– the issue is the length people have gone through to exploit Amy both in life and after. Once her divorce was finalized, ex-husband Blake stated that he wanted financial recognition for the sheer fact that her most successful songs happened in the six years they were a couple, even after receiving approximately $400,000 from her. Keep in mind that beyond the biopic, which currently has an online petition aimed to stop production, there was the failed hologram tour, books, and more.

As for the still photo above, that scene was meant to depict the day Blake got arrested. Here she’s portrayed crying and chasing after the police, even though in real life she apparently stayed inside her apartment the whole time, which makes the accuracy in the film damn questionable.

Another layer to this is that when it comes to people who struggle with addiction, we tend to not treat them very kindly. Instead they get infantilized and treated like they’re unable to have a clear understanding of other people’s actions and motivations. They’re also treated as if they want to be an addict, when in reality addiction is often a response to trauma or environment. As shown many times in Amy, the singer struggled with depression and bulimia.

While it’s easy to go looking for someone to blame, it’s also easier to ignore a very clear, toxic pattern, and that’s one where the gifted child of the family is pressured to succeed as widely as possible, because that’s what everyone simply expects them to do. There used to be a time where this sort of thing was normalized in showbusiness, whether it’s with Michael Jackson, Shirley Temple, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Drew Barrymore, Britney Spears, or Jennette McCurdy. However we don’t live in a time of chosen ignorance anymore. The world is also different than it was in 2011, the year Amy passed.

And the issue doesn’t only extend to showbusiness either. In families that have a pattern of financial struggles, there’s often the child who’s also expected to carry the financial burdens like somehow they’re a walking paycheck. Whether that was the case for Amy is a bit debatable, but you can’t deny a lot of expectations were put on her. You also can’t deny that people did take advantage.

In my case, while I was in college, most of the money I received from loans and bursaries would go into my mother’s pockets, because she used to spend her money recklessly and would permit herself to indulge in alcohol and cigarettes. On the flip side, anytime I wanted to spend for myself, she accused me of being selfish, because according to her, my purpose was to provide a lifestyle she couldn’t afford on her own, all because she didn’t go to work. Spending habits aside, my mother also yelled at me, called me names, kept me isolated from other people, and made me feel like she regretted becoming a parent in the first place. And while a lot of that has to do with my mother’s own issues with mental health, it wasn’t justified.

Going back to Amy Winehouse, rather than forcing fans to accept a biopic that most of us don’t want to see, her family and the crew should think of what she might want. Considering all that she went through in the media, it’s hard to believe Amy ought to enjoy this level of exposure. Like her idol Tony Bennett says in a segment of the documentary Amy, “Most famous artists I’ve ever met are the most nervous before they get that stage. No matter how much you feel it, you wanna feel it even more so it’s an honest recording. And that’s what Amy had, she had that gift. She was a natural true jazz singer, and a jazz artist doesn’t like fifty thousand people in front of them.”

Looking back on Amy Winehouse and her body of work, considering that almost every song of hers describes an infinite loneliness, despite being in a world where so many loved her and still do, makes it clear she rarely got the opportunity to be surrounded by the right people. If she had more Tony Bennetts in her life, things might be different. It was clear from the beginning that her light shone so bright, some would do anything to dim it, while simultaneously shaming her for trying to cope with the pain of it all. There has been no one like her since, in terms of music, fashion and personality. On the surface, it’s easy to say that a biopic might restore her reputation, but just by the first images, we all know that’s a lie. If there’s anything we already learned with artists whom share similar stories, it’s that sometimes the best way to admire someone is by simply leaving them alone.


To check out my books, social media and more, scroll to the menu. And be sure to watch my short documentary series on the Saturn Return! If you support my work, consider buying me a coffee. If you liked this article, you’ll probably enjoy Being a Neurodivergent Artist with Depression is… A Lot and Say “No” to Being the Tortured Artist

To follow on social media, you can find me on Tiktok and Instagram @karina_thatwitch and Facebook at Persephone’s Lounge.

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