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How biopic "Back to Black" puts Amy Winehouse "right back in the center of her story"

"Back to Black": The life of Amy Winehouse
"Back to Black": The life of Amy Winehouse 07:30

Trying to capture a life in film – never mind one as complex as that of Amy Winehouse – can be a challenge. When it comes to biographical films, critics often fire from both sides, calling them exploitative or sanitized. It's not for the faint-hearted director. But according to Sam Taylor-Johnson, "There's something about tackling difficult subjects where I just 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, was generating interest well before its U.S. release this week. While Taylor-Johnson was shooting, photos from the set were published, engendering fierce reactions. "Yeah, it was difficult in the early days," she said, "not because I read anything, because I try not to read anything."

Doane asked, "But you must have been aware when people were saying, this is 'revolting'?"

"No, I wasn't actually. Thanks for letting me know!" Taylor-Johnson laughed. "I make sure everyone on set tells me nothing. Because I can't make the movie I want to make if I start hearing people's dissenting voices or opinions."

"Back to Black" focuses on the making of the album by that name. It chronicles an intensely creative and complicated period for the multi-platinum-selling-artist, who'd wind up producing only two albums before she died from alcohol poisoning at just 27.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in "Back to Black." Focus Features

Winehouse's brash charisma, that voice, and her distinct 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 were well-publicized, including her battle with alcohol and drugs, and the 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 that the director wanted to get across that she felt the public didn't know? "I guess what I wanted to do was to kind of create the whole person," Taylor-Johnson said. "And so much of what we knew about her was sort of fed to us by the tabloids. And with our movie, it's about really being with her as she creates the music, and that's a perspective I don't think we've necessarily felt or seen."

Pre-beehive and before all the attention, Winehouse's talent and self-confidence were already apparent at age 20. In a 2004 interview on British TV, the host asked her about pressures from her record company:

Jonathan Ross: "Have they tried to mold you in anyway? Did people ask you to do things to change the way you look or speak or behave?"
Amy Winehouse: "Yeah! One of them tried to mold me into a big triangle shape, and I went, 'No!'"

Taylor-Johnson said, "It was one of the first times I'd seen her in an interview, and I remember just thinking, she's funny and she's so quick."

Taylor-Johnson turned to Marisa Abela to portray the singer. And while other actresses came to the audition with Winehouse's signature beehive hairdo and eye makeup, Abela did not. "I felt that it was important that I had to inhabit Amy from the inside out."

"Sunday Morning" met Abela at London's Abbey Road Studios, 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, like, incredibly talented session musicians, but they are Amy's band – my first time singing with any band!"

While auditioning, Abela told the director she couldn't really sing.  "There are jobs that come up where you say, 'Yeah, of course I can ride a horse or I can swordfight.' But for this, I didn't want to get it in like the back doorway," she said.

And what did Taylor-Johnson think? "It's okay, because I kept thinking we'll figure out a way. And that way, I guess, you know, will be sort of lip-syncing and dubbing. But it also felt unsatisfactory doing it that way."

In the end, they did not need dubbing – Abela trained, and sang the entire film.

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

BACK TO BLACK - Official Trailer [HD] - Only In Theaters May 17 by Focus Features on YouTube

Taylor-Johnson was equally obsessed with trying to get every detail right: "How would Amy see this? How would she think? Am I telling this authentic to how she would see it? Would she be mad at me? Am I going to have a bad dream tonight where she comes and tells me it's not good?"

About 20 years ago, she'd seen Winehouse at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott's, where they shot scenes for the film. "She'd step down off the stage, and just was singing in a sort of very shy and quite fragile way, but with this incredibly powerful voice," Taylor-Johnson said. "And I do remember just thinking, this is something special."

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

Asked to address critics who say the film profits from a story with a tragic ending, Abela replied, "I think that sometimes when we experience a trauma as a society, like the death of an incredibly loved and respected talent, that trauma and that tragedy can eclipse the success. I think that this story is putting Amy right back in the center of her story and giving her her songs back."

For more info:

Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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