Borrowing or Stealing: The Sound of the Musical Biopic

In the leadup to the release of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black, the biopic covering the life of songwriting extraordinaire Amy Winehouse, there has been a lack of critical consensus. Not around the quality of the film (which has generally been deemed bad), but around the decision to have Marisa Abela (the actress playing Amy) re-record Winehouse’s discography. In casual conversation I have heard it referred to as both “disrespectful” and “smart”; but the truth of its artistry lies somewhere between “annoying distraction” and “moving feat.” 

Like any genre, the musical biopic is riddled with nuances that render it especially difficult to successfully pull off – potholes in the road to cinematic success. More so than a traditional biopic, the musical biopic is reliant on the charisma of its lead performer, shifting the superstar mantle of the real person onto a lesser-known actor. When this is successful, the results transcend the limits of the form (Amadeus) and offer actors a way to reimagine the source, becoming synonymous with it simultaneously (Funny Girl). But even at its most successful, the ethics of sketching a real person’s famous life in filmically exciting, factually inaccurate ways proves ethically complicated. Cinema’s desire for emotional resonance leaves people’s hard-won realities scattered across the story beats of the biopic.

While Abela ably embraces Winehouse, mimicking her particular onstage swagger, there is something eerie haunting the audience’s relationship with her. Winehouse’s voice was starkly unique, smooth and surprising, wholly unpracticed and yet inevitable. When Patrick Cremona interviewed Abela for the Radio Times, she acknowledged the peculiarity of this challenge: “one of the incredible things about Amy was that she never performed the same song twice…it kind of has to be right, because that’s the only time it ever sounded like that.” 

In theory the presence of a different and distinct musical voice would offer audiences something new to grasp onto, a thrilling new take on the songs (and songwriting) they love. But rather than retroactively justifying the existence of the biopic, the technique often serves to remind us of the form’s limits. In Taylor-Johnson’s attempts to distance listeners from the source, it leads them back to purity of Amy’s original renditions. Abela mimics the cues that had cemented Winehouse in the culture, but the result is a sonic uncanny valley, familiar but a few steps removed from the artistic moment concocted in real time. 

Perhaps the most famous example of this failure in imagination is Bryan Singer’s rendition of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance in Bohemian Rhapsody. Like Back to Black, Bohemian Rhapsody mixes the original music with the actor’s renditions, (it is impossible to know to what degree either version prevailed over the other in the final edit, but it seems likely that Abela’s singing features substantially more than Rami Malek’s). The real Live Aid is accessible on YouTube, and even across time and blurry pixelation, the band’s performance is wonderfully near and vibrant. Rami Malek’s version of Freddie Mercury only gestures towards this energy. His shoulders are set and his neck strains forward, but he is otherwise unmarked – free of sweat or bruises or scars, like a Freddie Mercury action figure. These musical biopics function in the same way as live action Disney remakes, haphazardly approximating the magic of the real thing, with the creatives involved just hoping that the novelty of such musical recreation will sustain people’s interest.

Winehouse’s early death recontextualizes a lot of her life and work, potentially casting her evocative lyrics in a calculating fatefulness. In the final moments of Back to Black, Taylor-Johnson follows Amy as she wanders up the gleaming, spiral staircase in her newly purchased London mansion. All the while, Abela’s version of “Tears Dry on Their Own” echoes around the marble hall. This warbling rendition of one of her most famous singles marks the film’s final scene — the day Amy really died. But this was a real person, not a mythical figure, and despite her resonant songwriting, her death wasn’t preordained. Once again, this is an example of Abela’s voice distracting the audience, prioritising a present-day perspective over Amy’s. 

Funny Girl similarly ends with a dramatic spin on the subject’s most famous song. Barbra Streisand, as Fanny Brice, stands mid stage accosted by the glaring white spotlight. Under Streisand’s guidance, aided by her full-bodied commitment, “My Man” becomes more than it was. Something delicate and melancholic grows sweeping, grand enough to be shared between audience and performer. “Oh my man, I love him so,” she admits, tearfully, “he’ll never know.” It’s unclear whether she is singing as Streisand or Fanny, singing to an audience or to the viewer; now all of us are complicit in this heartbreak. Over 50 years ago, Streisand proved that it was possible to imbue an old hit with new life, reanimating a singer rather than remembering them.

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