Back To Black chronicles the life and music of Amy Winehouse

Following a successful career in TV Comedy and Drama, Mancunian Matt Greenhalgh and director acclaimed director, artist and photographer Sam Taylor-Johnson first got together in Los Angeles to discuss the script. “We worked through what we thought was interesting about her life,” explains Greenhalgh. Research was done via the many press interviews Amy undertook and the lyrics of her songs, rather than from articles and books written about her without her cooperation.

(L to R) Writer Matt Greenhalgh and director Sam Taylor-Johnson on the set of BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

 “There is no greater love, than the love people have for Amy whose music has touched their souls and provoked their heart into feeling that she is theirs and theirs alone. A small bird of a woman with the power of a Lioness and a voice that transcends our time. Bringing Amy’s story to life is a privilege, to have the space to soak in her music, know her heart and to bring it all to the screen is a gift I’m excited to pass along into the world,” says Sam Taylor-Johnson

Jack O’Connell stars as Blake Fielder-Civil in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Ollie Upton/Focus Features

Deeply soulful and astonishingly powerful, Back To Black chronicles the life and music of Amy Winehouse (Marisa Abela), through the journey of adolescence to adulthood and the creation of one of the best-selling albums of our time. With a script based on first-person material, we see the rise of Amy Winehouse from her suburban upbringing to global superstardom, before her death at just 27, leaving the world with an indelible legacy. When she meets Blake (Jack O’Connell), their connection is instant, and despite the fact Blake already has a girlfriend, the pair share a whirlwind romance. Amy is wary of Blake’s use of hard drugs, but when the pair break up, a troubled Amy starts using herself. Back to Black details her and Blake’s split. Amy and Blake’s relationship again turns toxic, and they fight violently on the streets of London. Blake ends up in prison for assaulting the manager of a pub, and a distressed Amy plays a chaotic Glastonbury Festival show, defending him to an unimpressed crowd. While behind bars, Blake gets clean of drugs and, realising they aren’t good for each other, asks Amy for a divorce. In the wake of heartbreak, Amy at last agrees to go to rehab and starts to move on. Separated from Blake and finally clean, Amy appears rejuvenated and on the road to health and happiness. Yet her story comes to an end far too young – Back to Black lets us remember her incredible life and legacy.

Initial plans for Back To Black began with British film producer Alison Owen who was keen to celebrate Amy Winehouse’s incredible musical output. “It felt to me that she was joining that group of women that get remembered more for their early death than their talent,” explains Owen, who also wanted to fight against the fetishisation of the star’s tragic passing in 2011 at the age of 27. “People almost forget what great artists they are. I felt keen that that shouldn’t happen with Amy, and she should be remembered for being one of the most inspiring artists of the 21st century.”

Owen was keen for Sam Taylor-Johnson to direct. “Sam was always my first choice, and it was an absolute dream come true when she replied,” says Owen. “She’s got such an understanding of that era. She understood Amy from the beginning.” The project would see a return to music for Taylor-Johnson, whose 2009 directorial debut Nowhere Boy looked at the teenage years of John Lennon. Taylor-Johnson didn’t want the film to be a typical biopic, but instead be led largely by Amy Winehouse’s music and her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. “It’s not a cradle-to-grave lifelong story,” explains Taylor-Johnson. “Our movie is framed by Back To Black the album, and is in my mind a love story and from that love story the album was born.”

Greenhalgh zoned in on the triangle of Amy, Blake and her family. Again, the choice to highlight what Amy saw in Blake was vital. “It was important for us to show that there was a genuine love there, even though it was mired in toxicity sometimes – but she loved him, and he loved her,” says Greenhalgh. “It would have been easy to paint him as the villain of the piece, but I believe there was another story to be told.”

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

It was important to dig into the emotional truth of Amy’s story – and understand how Amy was feeling at different points in her life, even if it was impossible to know what was actually said. “The person is never real, it’s always the movie version,” says Greenhalgh. “What you can only do in situations like this, and with John Lennon, is to get the emotional truth from how you see it and then take it from there.” Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh also wanted to highlight a less told story – that of Amy’s close relationship with her grandmother Cynthia, and how deeply her death affected Amy. “I think that was when it started to go wrong and life unravelled. It was important for us to make that relationship as deep and as meaningful as possible.”

The finished script immediately connected with Alison Owen and STUDIOCANAL exec producer Joe Naftalin. “We felt an innate trust in Matt and Sam – when they delivered the first draft we felt so rewarded for that trust,” says Owen. “Joe and I called each other up as soon as we’d read it and both of us said that’s the best script we’ve ever read. It just flew off the page. It was a real work of art and brilliance.”

Marisa Abela – who plays Amy – was blown away by the script and its recentring of Amy in her own narrative. “It puts Amy back in the driver’s seat of her life, it’s not about how everyone else around her felt about who she was or why x y or z happened, it’s about Amy taking control,” says Abela. “Rather than pointing fingers, it’s a story that is told with as much vivaciousness as Amy lived her life – it leans into how boldly she lived.”

Eddie Marsan (Mitch) was similarly impressed by the fresh take on Amy’s story, and its portrayal of her father. “The fact that there’s no villains in the piece – the only villain is the addiction – made me want to do it. I don’t play villains – I only play human beings,” says Marsan. “Sam had such compassion for Amy. It wasn’t a kiss or tell, or a gratuitous story. When I first read Matt’s script it made me cry and when I spoke to Sam she said, ‘I would rather people cry at the end of this than be titillated by it’.”

The film was shot using the very first draft. “Which is almost unheard of,” says Taylor-Johnson. “Normally it goes back and forth at least ten times with changes, but this script was just so beautifully executed.”

(L to R) Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O’Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Taylor-Johnson worked with a predominantly female crew on set including cinematographer Polly Morgan, production designer Sarah Greenwood, set designer Katie Spencer, costume designer PC Williams and hair and make-up designer Peta Dunstall. “It just felt like a very strong environment to tell a story about such a powerful force of a woman who it felt like we were all upholding,” adds Taylor-Johnson. “Sam’s vision of the film was a very intimate one – she really wanted people to understand who Amy was as a person,” says Morgan, who would look at French New Wave movies such as 1960’s Breathless as inspiration when it came to the film’s use of close-ups.

The team also worked with the co-operation of the holders of the music rights, Universal Music, and Sony, and it was also important for them to be respectful of family and friends. “Sam made it clear from the beginning she would only come on board if she could tell Amy’s story as truthfully as she could, from Amy’s own writings and lyrics” says Owen. “She did not want to be beholden to anyone for any approvals – she needed complete creative freedom”. On the other hand, Taylor-Johnson and Owen wanted to be courteous and understanding of those who knew Amy, like her band mates and friends and family, so made sure that communication was always in flow. “We didn’t want to follow any one person’s version,” continues Owen, “but Sam and I spent time with Janis and were inspired and moved by that conversation. We talked with other family members and friends and several of them visited the set – Janis in particular was very moved and said it was like spending the day with Amy again. We were all in tears that day.”

As Back To Black was to be told using key Amy Winehouse tracks to signify important moments in her story, cooperation of Universal Music and Sony was sought from the start. The assistance of Giles Martin and the use of Amy’s original band was also key. Amy’s bass player Dale Davis and backing singer Ade Omotayo were brought on board as musical consultants and re-recorded all the tracks used in the film at Martin’s iconic Abbey Road Studios – where Amy made her last ever recording with her hero Tony Bennett. “Few people knew her as well as they did,” says Owen of Amy’s band. “Obviously they felt very protective of her, and her legacy and they were invaluable and very generous in terms of giving of their time and knowledge and love for Amy.” Ade Omotayo, who was also a childhood friend of Amy’s, said; “It’s been a joy to work with Marisa, I’ve worked with her since the start, I’m really proud and happy with what Marisa has done, she’s done incredible work.”

(L to R) Actor Marisa Abela and director Sam Taylor-Johnson on the set of BACK TO BLACK, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Giles Martin worked closely with Abela to help recreate Amy’s unique sound and work on the nuances of what it meant to be Amy. Back To Black is the second film the legendary producer has worked on after the Elton John biopic, Rocket Man. “It’s a bit like being a stunt coordinator for music,” he explains of his role. “Amy has a voice that’s irreplaceable, but what Marisa does is carry the songs and the emotion and the feeling of Amy at that moment.” Abela also worked with vocal coach Anne-Marie Speed and movement coach Sarah Green and learned to play guitar. “I know that we’ve achieved what we want to achieve when people sometimes don’t believe it’s Marisa singing,” says Martin.

There are several live performances recreated in the film, including one of Amy’s 2008 Glastonbury set, as well as her appearance for the 2008 Grammys, when she won Record of the Year for Rehab. “The band that played at the Grammys, are the band that played at the Grammys when we recorded it,” says Martin. “But we can’t use them in the film because they’re 20 years older”. However, the original band were there behind the scenes during Abela’s performances. “It was priceless but also so emotional to have those guys on set,” adds Taylor-Johnson.

“It’s such an iconic performance,” says Abela of the Grammys appearance, “so that was one of the performances I wanted to learn beat by beat. Amy is essentially a jazz singer, so she never really sings anything the same twice when she’s performing.” So, the version of Rehab that Abela performs is the one Amy sang in London for the Grammys show, rather than a carbon copy of the version on the album. “It was an extraordinary achievement by Marisa and recreating those events was a real privilege,” says Owen.

The film’s sensitive underscore was provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. “Sam wanted a very particular sound for the underscore – achieving heartbreak without being sad, without overindulging in the tears,” says Martin. “I think Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are musical geniuses and they understand what that is. It’s a complete treat to be able to collaborate and work with them. I think the results are truly amazing”


SAM TAYLOR JOHNSON / DIRECTOR

Acclaimed director, artist and photographer Sam Taylor-Johnson started working in photography and film in England alongside fellow Young British Artists, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.  At the age of sixteen, she enrolled in an art school in Hastings, later moving back to London to attend Goldsmiths College. After graduating, she worked as a bartender and as a dresser at the Royal Opera House; the latter experience would influence her work’s unabashed theatricality. Originally a sculptor, she began working in photography, film, and video in the early 1990s. Her work has been exhibited at Venice Biennale 1997, winning Illy Café Prize for Most Promising Young Artist, and received a Turner Prize nomination in 1998.  As an artist she has exhibited at the Guggenheim, with solo exhibitions at The Hirshhorn Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art Houston, Walker Art Center Minneapolis among many other prestigious museums. In 2008, Sam directed BAFTA and Palme d’Or nominated, Sundance-winning short film, LOVE YOU MORE. She then directed her debut NOWHERE BOY, a biographical drama about John Lennon’s adolescence. NOWHERE BOY was nominated for four BAFTAs, including Outstanding Debut for Sam’s direction. Taylor-Johnson broke records for the biggest opening for a female director for her adaptation of best-selling novel FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. In 2017 Sam executive produced and directed the pilot episode of Netflix Original psychological thriller GYPSY starring Naomi Watts. Sam directed and produced, James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES that follows a drug- addled writers’ rehab. A MILLION LITTLE PIECES stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Juliette Lewis, Odessa Young and Charlie Hunnam. Now on Netflix. For Amazon she directed the series SOLOS episodes with Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. Also, for Amazon, an episode of the series HUNTERS staring Al Pacino and Judd Hirsch.

MATT GREENHALGH / WRITER

Following a successful career in TV Comedy and Drama, Mancunian Matt Greenhalgh began his film career with the release of CONTROL in 2007 which won Best British Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards – Matt also won a BAFTA for best Newcomer at the 2008 BAFTA Awards.  Matt’s second feature film, NOWHERE BOY, was a chronicle of young John Lennon’s early years was directed by Sam Taylor Johnson, and was nominated for ‘Outstanding British Film’ at the BAFTA’s in 2010. He has since gone on to write THE LOOK OF LOVE directed by Michael Winterbottom and FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL, released to critical acclaim and nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Leading Actress.