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There’s a new biopic of Amy Winehouse. Does ‘Back to Black’ capture the nuances of addiction?

Critics panned the biopic for oversimplifying Winehouse’s struggles, ones that a Northeastern expert says are common in the music industry.

Screen capture of the actress playing Amy Winehouse in the 'Back to Black' biopic singing into a microphone.
The new biopic on Amy Winehouse came out May 17 to much criticism for oversimplifying the singer’s life. Focus Features

It’s been over a decade since British singer Amy Winehouse succumbed to alcohol poisoning after becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Now a new biopic, named “Back to Black” after Winehouse’s final album, is exploring what happened to the star.

In early reviews, critics said “Back to Black,” which hits theaters in the United States on May 17, skims over the complexities of Winehouse’s life, including her battles with mental illness. Instead, reviewers noted the film seems to place the blame for Winehouse’s downfall on the paparazzi and the star herself.

But when a person loses their life to an addiction, there’s usually not just one person or factor to blame, said Melissa Ferrick, a professor of the practice in music at Northeastern University. Addiction is common among the singer-songwriter community and is often the result of many factors.

Headshot of Melissa Ferrick.
Melissa Ferrick, professor of the practice, said many in the music industry are exposed to things that make them vulnerable to addiction. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It’s such a complicated scenario,” Ferrick said. “For me, the hope would be that a movie like this would reach people who were struggling and see themselves in the film and that part of the film would be sure to put out that there is help.”

Winehouse made her name with “Back to Black,” which won her five Grammys as well as a Brit Award. She also made fans with the way she embraced the musicians she worked with and the opportunities she received.

“She seemed really grateful and in awe of the success she was having,” Ferrick said. “From what I gathered through screen and through listening, there was an innocence within her along with what a lot of people would refer to as an old soul. I felt a deep emotional connection to her voice and to her experiences in life.”

Behind-the-scenes, Winehouse struggled with mental illness, including bulimia, and addictions to both drugs and alcohol. She went to rehab several times before dying in 2011.

While there’s no research to show that musicians suffer addiction at a higher rate than the general population, Ferrick said older research shows there’s a higher rate of mental illness among writers. This could be linked to performers, many of whom write their own work, Ferrick added.

Ferrick, who is researching addiction in the singer-songwriter population, said a musician’s access to drugs and alcohol, the pressures of fame, a feeling of invincibility, and enablement by those around them as a circumstance of their field could combine with many performers’ predisposition to addiction.

“These things are just a keg waiting to explode,” Ferrick said. “The combination of extreme fame, access, enabling and the mentality of invincibility along with overwhelming success is a disaster waiting to happen. … I find it fascinating and hard to look at sometimes, but I think it’s really important that we do look at it and talk about it.”

But, Ferrick added, it’s important to talk about this the right way. Winehouse died at age 27 and people often consider her part of the “27 club,” a group of celebrities who died — many from addiction — at age 27. Ferrick balks at the concept of a label like this, saying it’s important to avoid “glorifying” addiction.

Equally important is intervention. Winehouse touched upon how the people in her life wanted her to go to rehab in her breakout hit. But, Ferrick said, an alcohol addiction can be difficult to overcome, especially for an artist who is likely surrounded by people who prefer they keep performing and making money instead of taking time off for treatment.

“The enabling is absolutely out of control,” Ferrick added. “There are many instances in which we can see that Amy Winehouse was screaming for help. I’ve seen footage of her playing onstage where she is clearly beyond intoxicated and no one helped her. …. It’s just horrifying that no one is stepping up. Maybe people just don’t understand. They don’t get that they’re even enabling. It’s not just supplying the drugs. It’s anybody involved that knows there’s something wrong and they’re not doing anything about it.”