‘Approval from the family? That wouldn’t work for me’: cast and crew of Back to Black on their Amy Winehouse movie

‘There was no way I was going to get into anything that was scandal-based or disrespectful’: Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell as Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil in ‘Back to Black’  (Focus Features/StudioCanal)
‘There was no way I was going to get into anything that was scandal-based or disrespectful’: Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell as Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil in ‘Back to Black’ (Focus Features/StudioCanal)

It’s early 2023 and, in a film studio in west London, the production crew on Back to Black are attempting to recreate a pivotal moment in the career of Amy Winehouse: the singer’s chaotic appearance on the Pyramid Stage at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival. She’s riding high from the long-tail success of her second album, 2006’s Back to Black, but up there on the main stage, she’s wobbly and wobbling, slugging booze as she shouts to the audience about her fella, Blake, currently incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

It’s a crucial moment in both Winehouse’s career and the film, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, about the 27-year-old who died an untimely and horrible death from alcohol poisoning in 2011, after a period of sobriety. So for Polly Morgan, the director of photography, the decision to shoot the world’s biggest festival inside the historic but small Ealing Studios was initially baffling. Not least because Back to Black was going to great pains to faithfully recreate other moments from Winehouse’s life and times. Her first meeting with future husband Blake Fielder-Civil in Camden pub The Good Mixer and a pair of key Winehouse gigs round the corner in another north London boozer, The Dublin Castle – all were being shot in situ. By Taylor-Johnson’s later reckoning, “We shot in 56 locations in fortysomething days. I mean, we moved. We hotfooted our way around Camden.”

Accordingly, when Morgan – who’d recently shot historical epic The Woman King in South Africa – found out the plan for Glastonbury, she recalls, “I was horrified and thought it was a terrible idea! I was like: ‘Let’s just go outside at night-time!’ But actually working outside at night, during a very cold winter in London,” she says of a shoot that began on 16th January last year, “was not fun”.

The production team duly went to some effort to recreate a corner of Somerset’s Worthy Farm in London W5. “We had about 300 or 400 extras,” Marisa Abela, the big-screen newcomer tasked with playing Amy, tells me a year later. “There was grass laid out on the floor, and cranes. I remember walking out and being like: ‘F***ing hell, I never thought I’d be doing this!’

“That was a really fun challenge,” adds the 27-year-old. “Amy was constantly testing boundaries. And that performance is a big one. She’s just like: ‘How far can I go?’”

But Abela – who broke out with her role in Industry, the BBC/HBO drama about City of London finance hotshots – was prepared. She’d studied the BBC footage of Winehouse’s performance, and she felt she had an insight into the singer’s mindset at the time, one month before Fielder-Civil would be sentenced to 27 months for assaulting the owner of a bar. “I said to Sam when I got there on [set] that day: ‘I want it to feel like she’s trying to run away.’ It’s right after Blake is taken to prison in our film [and] hopefully it reads that it’s just too much for her. Like she’s trying to escape in that moment.

“I was saying to the [actors playing the] poor security guards – who were all stunt men – ‘I am going to be running. And I’m not gonna take it easy,’” she continues. “To the camera guy as well: ‘You’ve gotta keep up!’”

“There’s a great moment that we’ve built in there where you start to run as if you’re just going to keep running out of Glastonbury,” chips in Taylor-Johnson, sitting next to her lead actor in a central London hotel. “It’s one of my favourite moments.”

Cast and crew were being ultra-careful, shooting largely in reverse-chronological order so Abela could commence filming – having been under careful dietary supervision before production began – at Winehouse’s awful, final weight. Or, as Taylor-Johnson says: “We shot all the tough scenes [first], with Amy at that stage where she was painfully disappearing [before our eyes].”

And yet: even as they were in the guts of shooting their film, the makers of Back to Black were already up against it. A “first look” image of Abela as Winehouse, released last January before filming had even begun, drew widespread ire on social media. Then, paparazzi images of the actors on location in north London also started a firestorm of criticism. Then came the trailer, released two months ago: 10 million views and thousands of adverse hot takes. The general tenor of most of which could be boiled down to: “This looks fake.” And: “This is too soon.” And: “How could they do this to our Amy?” And: “Amy would have hated this.”

There was no trickery involved. It was like: this is how I see her soul

Marisa Abela

Some of this was obviously the work of the pitchfork-ready online mob. But no little part of it was also the heartfelt outpouring of fans of a beloved artist, gone within (relatively) recent memory, who didn’t want her memory further traduced in a media that many viewed as being instrumental in her demise. They felt protective of Winehouse.

But then, so did Taylor-Johnson. For the director of Back to Black, Winehouse’s artistry is at the heart of her portrayal in the film. When I ask the filmmaker what drew her to want to tell the story of a star who lived as she died, in the brutal glare of the spotlight, her reply is emphatic and direct: “The music, the music, the music.”

But that’s artistry filtered through the lens of emotion. As she’s been at pains to point out, not least in a pre-emptive director’s statement, Back to Black is not a biopic. As configured by herself and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, it’s a love story: that between Winehouse and Fielder-Civil, played in the film with bravura charisma by Jack O’Connell.

The project had come to Taylor-Johnson via an experienced movie producer with more than a passing knowledge of what it was like to be a young woman caught up in the vortex of early Noughties British pop and celebrity culture: Alison Owen is the mother of Lily Allen. “When Alison asked if I would be interested... it was the same feeling that I had with Nowhere Boy: it was a no-brainer.”

Nowhere Boy (2009) was the artist-turned-filmmaker’s first feature, also written by Greenhalgh and another portrait of a young artist as a future legend: John Lennon. He was played by Aaron Johnson, who would go on to become the second husband of the woman then known as Sam Taylor-Wood, who had first achieved fame as a visual artist.

Abela is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson on the ‘Back to Black’ set (Dean Rogers/Focus Features)
Abela is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson on the ‘Back to Black’ set (Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

“I [hadn’t been] setting out to do anything like this,” continues the director. At the time of Owen’s approach she was based in Los Angeles with Aaron and their blended family of four daughters. “But as soon as the idea came through, it was like: that would be so amazing. And the music was really the North Star through the whole idea and the production. Everything was all about her, the lyrics, and that sort of guided us through.”

Taylor-Johnson went into the project with the blessing of the Winehouse family. But she insisted that it came with no strings, or compromise. “From the outset, I said to Alison: ‘I need full control. I can’t have anything that ties my hands in any situation. So if there are approvals with family and things like that, that won’t work for me. Because I really need to make the film instinctually. And obviously, they’ll find things that they may not be comfortable with.’”

Nonetheless, she did the right thing and met the family – Mitch three times, mum Janis twice. “Each time I was confronted with deeply sad, grieving parents. So that responsibility was there. But at the same time, I had to try and stay focused on the film that I needed to make – but at the same time, out of respect, understand their position.”

First and foremost, Taylor-Johnson was free to cast her own Amy. She wanted to do so on the strength of her leading lady’s acting, not her singing prowess (or otherwise), figuring they’d work out the music side of things later. Abela was similarly upfront: while the other actors auditioning for Winehouse turned up in a cacophony of beehives and mascara, the RADA graduate (class of 2019) showed up as herself.

I didn’t want to play a demonised version of Mitch, or a sanitised version. I wanted to play a father

Eddie Marsan

“It was probably the most honest I’ve ever been in an audition situation,” says Abela. “That also came down to not doing anything with my hair and makeup. [My thinking was]: if I can convince them that Amy is in here somewhere, just through my eyes and my spirit, then we have somewhere to go. There was no trickery involved. It was like: this is how I see her soul.”

Still, Abela was straight with Taylor-Johnson: “I’m not a singer.” The director was unfazed. She had access to Winehouse’s music from her record label Universal, owners of the rights, and permission to – should she want to – use the original vocals. On the 2022 Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody, producers had the same freedom, enabling British star Naomi Ackie to mime to Houston’s powerhouse vocal – a decision that led many observers to discern onscreen an enjoyment-skewering disconnect.

Casting the broadly unknown Abela, then, was something of a risk, albeit one lessened by what Taylor-Johnson characterises as “also knowing that we had Amy’s voice [as a fallback]. But I felt like Marisa should go and train to sing, even just to show how the mouth and jaw works, so it looks convincing to film, should we – most likely in my mind then – dub.”

Unbeknownst to Taylor-Johnson, Abela went deep on that training. She worked with Royal Academy singing teacher Anne-Marie Speed – “one of those women that very much believes anyone can sing,” says Abela. She sums up Speed’s view as: “If you can talk, you can sing.”

Abela worked with Royal Academy singing teacher Anne-Marie Speed to train her voice for ‘Back to Black’ (Dean Rogers/Focus Features)
Abela worked with Royal Academy singing teacher Anne-Marie Speed to train her voice for ‘Back to Black’ (Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

Abela duly “learnt to sing with my own voice first. Then I learnt to sing jazz – I mean, I wouldn’t say ‘learnt to sing jazz!’” she clarifies, hesitant to impute too much achievement to vocal skills she learnt from scratch. “It was like: ‘We have your voice now. But rather than going straight into an impersonation of Amy, let’s listen to who inspired her [and explore] why she sang the way that she sounded.’” Cue a deep dive into the records of jazz greats Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, hip-hop star Lauryn Hill, and Sixties girl-groups The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las.

Taylor-Johnson reunited with Abela several months later, at Abbey Road Studios, in the company of Giles Martin, her film’s music producer. “Marisa also learnt to play guitar, so she sat down and sang this one song… It was that moment where you thought: ‘Wow. We struck gold.’”

As for the songs she was singing: the writing of the Back to Black album was inspired by that intense Winehouse/Fielder-Civil love story – its drug-like highs and its actual druggy lows. That, in turn, gave Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh the framework for their telling of her story. So, while their film does chart Winehouse’s rise from unknown, working-class, suburban north London jazz aficionado to Grammy-hauling global superstar, its gaze is focused.

That means no room on screen for Winehouse’s strong coterie of female friends, or for Mark Ronson, her producer/collaborator on her second album – in this telling, Blake is her whole world. But, yes, plenty of screen time for her limelight-loving dad Mitch. He’s portrayed by Eddie Marsan, the actor making his fellow East Ender considerably cuddlier than the exploitative figure he appeared to be in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary, Amy.

“I never want to play two-dimensional characters,” replies the perennially busy Marsan when I ask whether he had any reservations about taking on the role. “So I didn’t want to play a demonised version of Mitch, or a sanitised version. I wanted to play a father. Anybody who raises kids,” continues this father of four, “we’re full of love. And we make mistakes. That’s what being a parent is all about.

Abela and Eddie Marsan as Amy and Mitch Winehouse in ‘Back to Black’ (Focus Features/StudioCanal)
Abela and Eddie Marsan as Amy and Mitch Winehouse in ‘Back to Black’ (Focus Features/StudioCanal)

“That’s what I loved about the script that Matt wrote and that Sam wanted to direct: that it was an honest portrayal of a father full of love, whose daughter was suffering from addiction at the time when she was also the most famous woman in the world.”

That focus also means plenty of screen time for the elements that the director views as contributing significantly to Winehouse’s downfall. “I believe that paparazzi and addiction are the two villains of our movie,” says Taylor-Johnson. “When I started doing research, I realised I could look up almost any given moment in her career and life and find pictures of her. Breakfast, lunch, dinner; out and about; everywhere, every day, all the time. Which meant that Amy was always tracked and followed and stalked and hounded.

“For a young girl who is vulnerable and in the world, living [it] up, falling down, having that documented,” expands the director, “made me realise how damaging that can be on anyone, firstly. But for anyone who is in any way fragile and vulnerable, even more so. So it was important to portray it. And also to portray how, towards the tail end of her life, that she couldn’t even see the paparazzi any more. Because they were so much part of her day-to-day existence. That,” she concludes, “is no way to exist.”

Given that brutal public trauma, though – all too real and all too present, still, for many in the public eye – is it all too soon for a movie about Amy Winehouse, a quick-feeling 13 years after her death? At time of writing, the first reviews have started to appear, and it’s fair to say they’re split. In The Independent’s two-star review, Charlotte O’Sullivan noted the film’s unwillingness to criticise anyone but the paparazzi. Most applaud Abela’s performance, and the filmmakers’ intentions. To this reviewer, the team have done what they set out to do: celebrate a music and a love story that was hugely important to Winehouse. And, I second O’Connell’s emotion: Abela is “f***ing flawless”. But more than a few feel like the rehashing of Winehouse’s tragedy is a tragedy all over again.

‘A love story’: Abela and Jack O’Connell in ‘Back to Black’ (Dean Rogers/Focus Features)
‘A love story’: Abela and Jack O’Connell in ‘Back to Black’ (Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

“Of course people might think it’s too soon,” acknowledges Greenhalgh. “But look at it another way: when John Lennon’s film and Ian Curtis’s film came out,” he says, referring to Control (2007), Anton Corbijn’s well-received biopic of the Joy Division singer, another gone-too-soon star, which Greenhalgh also wrote, “there were probably a lot of people that would have wanted to see those films who had passed away … And Amy’s still vibrant and relevant, so you might as well make the movie for as big an audience as possible.”

But putting a more, shall we say, soulful spin on the scriptwriter’s bluntly utilitarian view, is Jack O’Connell. The ubiquity of her music and freshness of her memory are no barrier to Winehouse being memorialised on film, he says. Quite the contrary. “She’s massive,” says the 33-year-old. He’s aware that Back to Black’s retro-in-2006 vibes mean that its songs are effectively date-proof – and, more importantly, that the strength of Winehouse’s songwriting means she’s as vital to Generation Z as she remains to the ageing millennials (and every 20th-century cohort behind them) who fell for that generational talent.

“People will be banging Amy Winehouse tunes in 50, 60, 100 years,” he says. “But also, we’re respecting that there is an element of sensitivity in this matter because we’re dealing with someone who’s no longer with us, and passed away untimely. There was no way I was going to get into anything that was scandal-based or disrespectful.”

“I hope we give Amy her agency back through this telling of this story,” echoes Taylor-Johnson. “So that when you come out of the cinema afterwards, you want to hear the music again. That’s her legacy. Not just the tragedy. Not just the sadness of a flame burning so bright and so fast.”

‘Back to Black’ is in cinemas