How the biopic 'Back to Black' puts Amy Winehouse 'back in the middle of her story'

It can be challenging to capture a life in film – let alone one as complex as Amy Winehouse's. When it comes to biographical films, critics often shoot from both sides, calling them exploitative or sanitized. It's not for the weak-hearted director. But according to Sam Taylor-Johnson, “There's something about tackling tough topics that makes me think: come on let's go!

Taylor-Johnson's film “Back to Black,” a drama about the life and music of British singer Amy Winehouse, has been generating interest long before its U.S. release this week. While Taylor-Johnson was filming, photos from the set were published, sparking strong reactions. “Yes, it was hard at first,” she said, “not because I read anything, but because I try not to read anything.”

Doane asked, “But you must have been aware when people said this is 'disgusting'?”

'No, actually I wasn't. Thanks for letting me know!' Taylor-Johnson laughed. “I make sure that everyone on set doesn't tell me anything. Because I can't make the movie I want to make if I hear people's dissenting voices or opinions.”

“Back to Black” focuses on the making of the album of that name. It chronicles an intensely creative and complicated period for the multi-platinum-selling artist, who would ultimately produce just two albums before dying of alcohol poisoning at age 27.

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Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in 'Back to Black'.

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Winehouse's brash charisma, voice and distinctive musical style made her a star. She won five Grammys for the album 'Back to Black'. But along with her success, the singer's struggles have been highly publicized, including her battle with alcohol and drugs, and tumultuous relationship with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.

Mark Ronson performs at the 100 Club
Amy Winehouse performs with Mark Ronson (right) at the 100 Club, July 6, 2010 in London.

Samir Hussein/Getty Images


But with so much written and said about Winehouse, was there something the director wanted to convey that she didn't think the audience knew? “I think I wanted to kind of create a whole person,” Taylor-Johnson said. “And so much of what we knew about her was kind of fed to us by the tabloids. And our film is about really being with her as she's making the music, and that's a perspective that I don't think we necessarily have felt or seen.”

Before the beehive and before all the attention, Winehouse's talent and confidence were already evident at the age of 20. In a 2004 interview on British TV, the presenter asked her about pressure from her record company:

Jonathan Ross: “Have they tried to mold you anyway? Have people asked you to do things to change the way you look, speak or behave?”
Amy Winehouse: “Yes! One of them tried to put me in a big triangular shape, and I said, 'No!'”

Taylor-Johnson said, “It was one of the first times I saw her in an interview, and I remember thinking, she's funny and she's so fast.”

Taylor-Johnson turned to Marisa Abela to play the singer. And while other actresses showed up to the audition with Winehouse's signature beehive hairstyle and eye makeup, Abela did not. “It was important to me that I had to inhabit Amy from the inside.”

“Sunday Morning” met Abela at Abbey Road Studios in London, where she came to record vocals for the film with Winehouse's former band. “It was amazing,” she said. “I mean, it was nerve-wracking, as you can imagine – not only are they incredibly talented session musicians, but they're also Amys band – my first time singing with a band!”

While auditioning, Abela told the director that she couldn't really sing. “There are jobs where you say, 'Yes, of course I can ride horses or sword fight.' But before this, I didn't want to get it in through the back door,” she said.

And what did Taylor-Johnson think? “It's okay because I kept thinking we'd find a way. And in that way, I think it will be a kind of lip-syncing and dubbing. But it also felt unsatisfying to do it that way.”

Eventually they did not dubbing needed – Abela trained and sang throughout the film.

To watch a trailer for 'Back to Black', click on the video player below:


BACK TO BLACK – Official trailer [HD] – Only in cinemas from May 17 Through
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YouTube

Taylor-Johnson was equally obsessed with trying to get every detail right: “How would Amy see this? How would she think? Am I authentically telling this to how she would see it? Would she be mad at me? Will I ?” a bad dream last night where she comes to tell me it's not right?”

About twenty years ago she had seen Winehouse at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott's, where they were shooting scenes for the film. “She got off stage and just sang in a kind of very shy and quite fragile way, but with an incredibly powerful voice,” Taylor-Johnson said. “And I remember thinking, this is something special.”

Amy Winehouse's story has long been shaped by public perception: her father was sometimes seen as an enabler, her husband blamed for her drug use. But this film explores the deep bond Winehouse had with them, using the singer's own lyrics and writings as a guide.

Asked to address critics who say the film benefits from a story with a tragic ending, Abela replied: “I think sometimes when we as a society experience a trauma, such as the death of an incredibly loved and respected talent, that trauma and that tragedy I think this story puts Amy back at the center of her story and gives her her songs back.”


For more information:


Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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