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Marisa Abela and Sam Taylor-Johnson – Back to Black Features An Uncanny Performance as Amy Winehouse in Biopic




Marisa Abela and Sam Taylor-Johnson

 

"Back to Black" Features An Uncanny Performance as Amy Winehouse in Biopic

 

by Brad Balfour

 

Evoking classic R&B, the late Amy Winehouse emerged as a celebrated new star by making old music sound fresh. She possessed a deeply soulful voice which she used to sing songs of love, heartbreak, and struggles with substance abuse, such as in her Top-10 hit "Rehab." Winehouse sold 16 million copies of the LP Back to Black and won big at the 2008 Grammy Awards, taking home Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. All that success was overshadowed by the Brit’s personal troubles, which, according to MTV News, included an arrest for drug possession – there was a viral video of the singer smoking what was reportedly crack cocaine – and an emphysema diagnosis. 

 

Winehouse's demons tragically got the best of her. According to The Guardian, authorities were summoned to the singer's north London home in July 2011, where they found her dead at the scene. Winehouse was reportedly a heroin user, but a postmortem inquest pinpointed a different cause of death. According to The Independent, a London coroner found no drugs in her system, ruling that the singer died of alcohol poisoning following a period of three weeks of sobriety. Winehouse is believed to have consumed 416 milligrams of alcohol per deciliter of blood, well over the fatal level of 350 milligrams. She was 27 years old.

 

This complicated history has been fodder for articles, books, a notable documentary and now a feature film, Back to Black. The movie’s title is taken from the hot album of the same name. Directed by 57-year-old Sam Taylor-Johnson, her feature film debut was 2009's Nowhere Boy, based on the Beatles' singer/songwriter John Lennon's childhood experiences.

 

Marisa Abela – Taylor-Johnson’s star for Back to Black – made her TV debut in 2020 with leads in the Sky One political thriller, COBRA and the BBC Two/ HBO office drama, Industry.  Abela appeared in the 2022 films, She Is Love and Rogue Agent. In July 2022, she joined the cast of Greta Gerwig's Barbie (2023). Then the actress starred as Winehouse in this biopic. 

 

This Q&A comes from an appearance made by the duo at the Museum of The Moving Image shortly before the film's May 17th release.


 

This is a remarkable story and one that, in some ways, is privy to when she was alive. For each of you, what moved the dial from this is a remarkable story to this is a remarkable story that I need to tell? 

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: When Alison Owen, our producer, called me and said, "I'm looking to make the story of Amy Winehouse, which would be interesting," I felt like I couldn't say "Yes" quick enough. After I said so, I suddenly processed the enormity of what I was taking on. It felt like it had to be made from [Amy's] perspective because, by living in London around the time when she was alive, I watched how her life was dissected and pulled apart in the tabloids and similarly post-death. I felt like going directly into her perspective. It was almost like allowing her to tell her own story through her words and her lyrics. It felt like a timely thing to do. 



Marisa Abela: Basically, I got a call from my agent who said they're doing it. I was about 13 when Back to Black came out, so I was aware of her music. I was singing the songs, but when you're singing “Love Is A Losing Game” and you're 13 years old, it doesn't mean that you really understood it fully. That was my understanding of Amy [at the time]. Then, because of all of the tabloids and the images and stuff, I knew of her in that way. So, I said, "Let me think about it." I was then in front of Sam Taylor-Johnson and Nina Gold, an amazing casting director in London. I knew they were being quite specific about who they were seeing, so I just didn't want to make a fool of myself, essentially. 

 

Then I started watching footage, the documentary, interviews about her life – things that really were quite telling [about] who she was as a person. There was just this thing about her and that carried me through the entire process I was watching. There was this magnetism, this intensity, this deep well of feeling, emotions and intensity, that I was so drawn to. I felt that we'd drawn from Amy, herself. It was all there in her music. For the people who still listen to her music often, this is for them. In the narrative around her life and death, I felt that what we'd lost really came through, but it seems like there's a double-edged sword here. 

 


There's so much media coverage, so many perspectives to sort through. Talk a bit more about your process and how you blocked out the noise and chose to privilege us with her perspective with what was there? 

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: It was important from the beginning to just block out the noise. There was a lot, especially when we were filming, and it became louder and louder. The louder it became, the more determined I was to just keep driving forward with it through her eyes and to uphold her. Our press is quite famous for pulling down anything that might seem to be successful in any way. It felt like those voices saying we need to protect her legacy were also the ones who pulled her apart during her lifetime. That emboldened me in a way to shut those voices out. The decision around how and what sort of film was going to be quite quickly came into place.

 

When I sat down with Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote the movie, I said, "If we are going through her workstyle perspective, with Frank and then Back to Black, obviously those are the keys to this film. “Back to Black really is a love story and tells us everything within it. It became our framework. I knew that that was difficult for a lot of people who had a lot of opinions and judgments. I felt like her declaration of love and the power of that love was important to uphold in order to understand the creative journey of Back to Black. In a way, we went into her perspective saying, she loved her father, and she loved Blake: therefore, that's our view. We still see some of the things that are highlighted in the documentary that people feel strongly about. They're still part of our film, but they're not seen through the lens of judgment. It was quite freeing to stay in her shoes on that journey. 

 


This being a love story, you think immediately of romantic love. But the relationships that I was most struck by were those she had with her family. Talk a bit about choosing actors and having them light up those roles? 

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: With her Jewish grandmother, it was clear – during the research and hearing the stories from the family and others – that she was so much a part of the fabric of who Amy was, through Grandma Cynthia’s style and love of jazz and music. So it felt like, "Okay, this is worth going further into and strengthening that relationship."  But when I went to Lesley [Manville] initially, she said, "Oh, I don't know if there's enough on the page for me." I said, "Look at it like this is the fabric of Amy." Once Lesley came on board, we then wrote more scenes because she was just so exceptional. We just homed in on those relationships that we felt were really important to the narrative of this story. Obviously, within – I don't know how many minutes it was, I've forgotten – so much had to be dropped by the wayside. For me, as a storyteller, I have to just find my path. The Winehouses – Cynthia, Mitch, and Janis – plus husband Blake were on a path. 

 


Talk a bit more about the music. Obviously, there's a great blueprint here. Did you have to make difficult decisions about what songs were included? 

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: I’ll start, but I want Marisa to take over on this because I'm talking too much. What I had quite early on was one of her playlists. On that playlist were The Specials and Minnie Riperton. It was quite a gift to have that. Amazingly, of all the things that were written that weren't Amy's music, we managed to have access to it. But when I started the movie, I had all the music rights from Sony and Universal. I didn't have to have approval for anybody. I could just make the movie I wanted to make. Matt wrote very specifically for the songs, almost like it's a musical in the sense that it belonged to the narrative structure. You couldn't choose "Love Is a Losing Game" and switch it with "Stronger Than Me." It really was laid out that way.

 

I'll let Marisa come into this because I just want to say, when I met Marisa for the audition, she said, I remember, "What about singing? I'm not a singer." But Marisa sang that entire movie. Every song you hear. So from the position of declaring she couldn't sing, what you saw is very contrary to that. Okay, you can talk about that...


 

Marisa Abela: I think what became clear was, as I was reading the script more and more, and watching more and more footage of Amy, was that these albums are so iconic and incredible from a songwriting perspective as well as a musical one. But what was so incredible about the performances I was watching was that they were completely different every single time. If she was in a bad mood – and she was often in a really, really bad mood – you wouldn't get half the song from her. If she was in a great mood, she was singing all over the place, amazing riffs. To certain members of the audience, this is the thing that made Amy a live performer. 

 

What weirdly felt like the most authentic choice was to be able to use my own voice to make whatever choice came to me in the moment from a purely impulse perspective as an actor. What was inspiring me at this moment? Is it that I'm looking at Blake during "There Is No Greater Love" and I'm so overwhelmed with feeling and emotion that I want to hold on to a specific sound for longer so that he can hear me through all of those decisions? In the same way, the first time you hear her write one of her own songs with "What Is It About Men," I wanted to be able to think about each line. How am I formulating this moment? you get to see the behind-the-scenes of the creation of a song. That's a really beautiful thing. If we were cutting to the studio recording of "What Is It About Men," for example, you couldn't have that scene of Amy sitting on the bed writing it for the first time, getting mixed up with certain words.

 

I basically felt I needed to get as close as possible to something that sounded as recognizable as possible to one of the most recognizable voices that you would believe in. The truth is, if you listen to them side by side, I'm sure there are huge differences. But it doesn't matter as long as you believe what she's saying and as long as you believe what she's feeling. That, to me, was always the most important thing as an actor, obviously. It's the intention that matters. Process-wise, I trained very hard and also learned to play the guitar. I listened to all the people that I think she would have grown up listening to. As Sam said, we had lots of playlists of hers. 

 

I was aware that she grew up listening to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, and Ray Charles. I just surrounded myself with that music and was singing along to it all the time. Then I was using the techniques I was learning with my singing teacher that were Amy's. We have a different face. She has a bigger jaw than me. She had a different nose to me. We use different resonances. So, it's different. But intention is the most important thing. I was training for two hours a day, every day, over the four months with my singing teacher.

 


There's so much to dive into with its emotionality, but can you talk about creating scenes like Glastonbury and the Grammys, all things that were enormous touchstones far beyond Amy's experience? These are media events that happen all the time. By recreating these scenes, which you do so successfully, can you talk some more about them? 

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: Oh, I'd love to because I'm so proud of Glastonbury. When you see that big open-air festival, we shot it in a room not much bigger than this theater. We just had brilliantly creative teams working on this. Glastonbury for the rest of the year is just a field. So all of those stages and everything, we had to recreate and film it. I had an incredible sound crew. What we created; it took months to get that sound exactly right. Then the Ronnie Scott scene early on. That was the only time I ever saw Amy play, in a young, up-and-coming Voices of Jazz. How old was she? Probably 19 or 20. It was at Ronnie Scott's. I used my memory of what it felt like being in the room with her to recreate how that would have felt. But yes, a lot of it, like the Grammys, we had YouTube running alongside what we were filming to try and emulate it as much as possible – like the same camera angles. Marisa's performance, as you can see, was absolutely spot-on. Every finger movement was incredible. So it was fun. It was so fun to recreate this. And it's fun to watch it.

 

Copyright ©2024 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 16, 2024.


Photos #1 & 2 © 2024 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos #3 - 6 © 2024 Dean Rogers. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.



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