We’ve always known we’d get some flak”: the making of Back to Black

Does the biopic of Amy Winehouse do justice to the complex nuance of her life?

There’s a scene in Back to Black, the Amy Winehouse biopic by artist-turned-director Sam Taylor-Johnson (50 Shades of Grey), where Marisa Abela, who plays the legendary singer, is sitting on the edge of the pavement in London’s Soho Square.

It’s late at night and she’s alone, shivering both from the cold and out of fear that the paparazzi – who have hounded her since the onset of her success, and would continue to hunt her down until her death at 27 in 2011 – might emerge from around the corner and pierce a rare moment of solitude, even anonymity.

A couple of minutes later, that’s exactly what happens. Amy is sucked back into the vortex of her fame, which has been marred by plenty of well-documented self-harm and addiction issues, ones the ravenous British tabloids of the 00s were only too gleeful to capture for the baying hordes who craved it. This sense of claustrophobia permeates much of Back to Black, which mainly focuses on the making of Amy’s 2006 album of the same name, which followed her acclaimed debut, 2003’s Frank.

The film treads a mostly familiar path to what we know about Amy’s life – thanks in large part to those tabloids, but also Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary Amy. His film offered an alternative, more rounded view of the singer as a once-in-a-generation musician, a brilliant friend with a close circle, and a wickedly funny and deadpan personality. All that, but also an extremely vulnerable person whose unravelling was broadcast for the world to see and profit from, Kapadia suggested, by self-motivated and exploitative members of her entourage, not least her dad Mitch.

Some of this is captured in Back to Black, a film whose mere existence, since pap shots from a London location shoot were published in early 2023, generated an onslaught of negativity on social media, mostly from fans. One X user posted that the movie looked insincere” and phony”; another pointed out that it absolutely should not exist”.

Vitriol only intensified when the trailer dropped a couple of months ago. Questions such as why?” and why now?” have circled the drain of the internet ever since. Why further capitalise on the spectacle of Amy’s downfall by dramatising it? In a 2022 Instagram comment, Mitch admitted the film was made, to some degree, to make money. We need money to keep Amys [sic] wonderful charity going. Some people are not going to like it. Tough shit.”

The Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity set up just after her death to help young people experiencing drug addiction and homelessness, stated over email to THE FACE that, the family didn’t have involvement in the film. Life rights were acquired at the outset of the project by the producers and no approvals over the film were required for making Back to Black. It is our understanding that the Winehouse family have donated a portion of the fee they received for their life rights to the Amy Winehouse Foundation.” The rights to Amy’s music are owned by Universal, further underlining how little her family were directly involved in the film – a separation that Taylor-Johnson apparently insisted on from the outset.

Why, though, revisit an era where such little grace was afforded to young women experiencing mental health and addiction crises in the public eye, and fictionalise it? It’s a story that, by now, has been spun enough times in documentaries such as Framing Britney Spears, Pamela, A Love Story, and Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me; beloved and troubled female public figures backed into corners, driven to the brink and publicly humiliated before being reappraised years later.

In Back to Black, Abela, whose breakout role was in HBO/​BBC finance drama Industry, puts her best foot forward, having learned to sing and recording original vocals for the project. But when a clip of this was released online a couple of weeks ago, the project was once again met with widespread derision and mockery. To those who hear an impersonator, no matter how well-intentioned, the decision not to use Amy’s original vocals further suspends reality, distracting the viewer from Abela’s performance as an actor, which is far more compelling.

Eddie Marsan delivers a soap opera-esque turn as Mitch. He comes across as a hard-nosed but ultimately benevolent, if a little self-involved, father – a far cry from the exploitative schmuck he was painted as in Kapadia’s Amy, about which the real Mitch was apparently incandescent. Jack O’Connell brilliantly plays Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy’s ex-husband and, as she insisted, the love of her life, who inspired Back to Black the album. Back to Black, the film, struggles to shake the narrative that most of Amy’s choices – both musical and personal – were dictated by the ebb and flow of her relationship with Blake during that time.

It’s a risk-averse industry, and I like taking risks. What’s the point, otherwise?”

Matt Greenhalgh, Back to Blacks screenwriter

But how do you even begin to portray such a stalwart of contemporary culture, let alone one that people feel so protective over? And why do you decide to do it in the first place?

There was a movie to be made, [that’s] how I feel about it. I’m glad it was this one,” says Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote the script and has remained friends with Taylor-Johnson since he penned her 2009 John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. Greenhalgh’s first feature writing gig, Control, released two years earlier, was about Ian Curtis, charting the Joy Division’s singer’s rise and eventual suicide at just 23 (both previous screenplays were based on books by family members – Lennon’s sister and Curtis’s widow, respectively). The drama, high emotion and life or death stakes” inherent to telling the stories of real people have always interested him.

I immediately said yes [to Back to Black], no qualms,” he continues. A couple of days later, I was like: Oh fuck. Am I going to get absolutely screwed for being the guy who wrote the shit Amy Winehouse movie?’ But you talk yourself through that. It’s a risk-averse industry, and I like taking risks. What’s the point, otherwise?”

And so Taylor-Johnson flew Greenhalgh out to Los Angeles, where she was living at the time. Their shared starting point, he tells me, was trying to remember Amy’s highlights and lowlights. What touched them about her. That was an organic place to start,” he says. Then, to fully research Amy’s life, he embarked on an archive deep-dive.

One of the things Back to Black does best is shed new light on Amy’s close relationship with her grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), a beloved life guide who taught her how to put her hair in a beehive. Cynthia Levy was Amy’s style icon”, a warm, irreverent former jazz singer who’d dated the likes of Ronnie Scott in her youth. Her death from lung cancer in 2006, only five months before Back to Black was released, was a devastating blow for Amy; in Back to Black, their love for one another is the film’s most powerful anchor. Indeed, Amy’s ashes were placed in her grandmother’s grave at Edgwarebury Jewish cemetery in North London.

Everyone got excited about that tone and about bringing Cynthia in as a main component of this whole musical journey,” Greenhalgh says. Still, there’s no shying away from the fact that the film’s subject matter is contentious. I think feathers had already been ruffled,” he says, likely referring to public outcry following Kapadia’s documentary, especially with regards to the way Mitch Winehouse’s behaviour was painted: I just wanted to see a good movie about [Amy]. I thought: there are all the components of a great film here. Looking at that aspect, just to be a part of that, was an opportunity.

I came to terms with the fact that people might have an issue early doors,” the screenwriter continues, saying that he and Taylor-Johnson discussed that” possibility. We wouldn’t be able to stop it. We had to decide whether it was worth us going forward and taking a load of flak. Our outlook was that if we made the film we wanted to make, hopefully we wouldn’t. We’ve always known we’d get some – it’s whether we can take that or not.” Well, he adds, we can definitely take that”.

One criticism to be made is that the film is myopic in its concern with Blake as a driving force during that period of Amy’s life (they split in 2008 when he was sent to jail for assault and divorced in 2009). For instance, there’s very little sense of what Amy’s other relationships looked like during this time, bar a quick acknowledgement of her friend and housemate Juliette Ashby, who was heavily featured in Kapadia’s doc alongside her other close friend Lauren Gilbert.

Greenhalgh’s motivation, he offers, is that Back to Black is a love story, and I’m attracted to fucked-up love stories. She was in love with Blake, and we have to respect that. We had to find the reasons why that was, because the film is from her point of view. It’s how she sees the world, and she saw something in Blake that swept her off her feet.”

The depiction of Amy as being largely isolated, especially towards the latter part of her life, is a major disappointment for Naomi Parry. One of Amy’s stylists and close friends, Parry worked extensively on the Design Museum’s 2021 exhibition about Amy, Beyond the Stage, and curated Beyond Black, a book published that same year which compiled imagery, memorabilia and reflections on her life from friends and celebrities such as Billie Eilish and Vivienne Westwood.

“[The people making the film] didn’t know who she was, quite frankly,” Parry says over the phone. Boy-mad, a broken bird [was the story]. It was so much more than that. Her downfall was layered.” Parry never wanted a biopic to be made in the first place – when Kapadia approached her to be a part of Amy, she declined.

There are so many people who are desperate to attach themselves to Amy or rewrite the narrative because they want to appear closer to her, or rewrite the fact they weren’t involved [in her major life events],” continues Parry. I’m sick of the narrative [around Blake] as well. She’d have wanted him to move on and have a good life. I remember her saying to me, really distinctly in [her house in] Camden Square when we were living together, that [since they split, it] was the first time she felt truly at peace with her relationship with Blake. She didn’t have pain thinking about him. That was such a moment.“

For Parry, a lot of pain comes not just from losing her friend, but Black to Blacks erasure of other friends in Amy’s life. I lived around the corner and I used to see her all the time. Catriona [Gourlay], Lauren [Gilbert], Juliette [Ashby], Chantelle [Dusette], Violetta [Kassapi], Dionne [Bromfield, Amy’s goddaughter], myself. My God, these were really important women to Amy.

It’s really weird seeing somebody playing your friend. Credit to Marisa, because who can pull off singing Amy’s songs, really?”

Naomi Parry, Amy’s friend and stylist

Parry also feels frustrated about the lack of edge” or grit” in Back to Blacks depiction of Amy in the clips and trailers that she’s seen: It’s really weird seeing somebody playing your friend. Credit to Marisa, because who can pull off singing Amy’s songs, really? It’s a very difficult thing to do. She did the best that she could. It’s got an incredible cast, but I see nothing of Amy in those. But maybe that’s because I’m too close to her and overly critical.”

Indeed, there’s a fine line between homage and caricature when the subject in question was such an undeniable force of nature. In Back to Black, Sam Taylor-Johnson tries to remedy this difficulty by foregrounding a tumultuous love story, and couching it in the making of one of the greatest albums of all time. But although that was a major part of Amy’s life, the angle can come off as voyeuristic and reductive.

Easier to capture are actual, objective elements: hair, make-up, tattoos, costume. Amy’s wardrobe in Back to Black, as put together by Bafta-winning costume designer PC Williams (The Kitchen, We Are Lady Parts) does hit the right notes, deftly going from the cutesy, ever-so-garish florals of Amy’s earlier, tamer days, to her signature super-skimpy denim shorts (usually worn with a couple of buttons undone) and retro red carpet looks. Dolce & Gabbana even remade Amy’s dress from her 2008 Grammys win for the film.

I wasn’t interested in creating another documentary about her life, but I wanted to be a part of a group of people who wanted to bring her story to the screen through a cinematic lens,” says Williams. It was important to me that we captured Amy’s quirkiness, that we didn’t try to make her perfect or exaggerate what already existed.”

Williams’s decision to take the Back to Back job in the first place was rooted in a firm belief in the project. As creative heads of department, we work in the shadows of the [work] that we contribute to and there’s a safety net associated with that. I knew that designing the costumes for this particular film would take away some of the anonymity that I’m accustomed to having and that’s a scary thought to consider, being under more intense scrutiny than ever before.

Everyone who loves Amy has their own personal interpretation [of her]. I can’t make everyone happy,” she concludes, but I can do my best to create what I feel in my heart is right.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Greenhalgh, who’s conscious of the sense of ownership people feel over Amy’s legacy. Back to Black is mine and Sam’s version, it’s Marisa’s version, it’s an editor’s version,” he says. Everyone’s put their lens on it. You do feel pressure, there’s a responsibility there. I hope this is a film Amy would want to see herself, [and recognise] that there’s now a bit more of a smile around the Amy Winehouse world.”

Alex Ogden Clark, a make-up artist and lifelong Amy fan, represents the kind of audience members that Back to Black will find most difficult to please: those who feel deeply connected to her work and persona. Clark, for instance, found comforting solidarity” in the singer’s elegies of pain, heartache and abandonment. [She was] unapologetic and brash while sensitive and vulnerable. Individual and defiant but self-loathing and uncertain.” When Clark heard about Back to Black, her immediate response was suspicion – Amy’s life was picked apart by the press, she was denied privacy, and it looked as though history was repeating itself. Who is this film for?” she wonders. Her story is being told for people to rubberneck at. What say did Amy have in Back to Black?”

It’s impossible not to bristle with discomfort when watching a fictionalised version of Amy’s most tragic moments, despite the endearing ones that also punctuate the film. A biopic truly works, surely, when a director can apply a singular vision to their subject by extracting a sense of their personhood, and re-evaluating pop culture titans with greater understanding than they were afforded while alive. Amy’s death didn’t take place in a vacuum, and it wouldn’t be right to point the finger at any one person or thing that led her to it – which, to be fair, Back to Black doesn’t do. But as a result, it shies away from digging deeper into the multiple dynamics which contributed to her life spiralling out of control.

Greenhalgh remains proud of the work that he and his colleagues achieved on the film. We set out to do something very difficult, especially with all the noise around Amy,” he says, adding that he hopes that the film will contribute towards a more positive image of the singer.

I don’t want clouds to surround Amy when you think of her. I hope that when the film comes out, kids will understand [her] light and humour, the joy of making music as a young woman, the freedom of London. Hopefully the edginess and moodiness will have been rolled back a bit. She’s a legend we all love.”

Back to Black is in cinemas from Friday 12th April

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