Sam Taylor-Johnson wants to ‘celebrate’ Amy Winehouse in ‘Back to Black,’ not judge her: ‘I felt like I had a huge responsibility’

In Entertainment
May 15, 2024

Amy Winehouse is back in the spotlight with director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new movie, Back to Black. The biopic looks at the late British singer’s rise to fame, personal struggles and the making of her Grammy-winning album of the same name. Both Taylor-Johnson and star Marisa Abela, whose stunning onscreen transformation into Winehouse is being hailed by critics, say it was crucial to remove any “judgment” while immersing themselves in this film.

“I felt like I had a huge responsibility in making this movie on so many different fronts,” Taylor-Johnson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “One of the things I had to keep coming back to was to have no judgments, you know? And to sort of balance that in a very careful way so that I could sort of remain in her perspectives.”

Winehouse, who died at age 27, was known for her unique, powerhouse voice as she churned out hits like “Valerie” and Back to Black. She won five Grammys in 2008, including Record and Song of the Year for “Rehab” and Best New Artist. But Winehouse’s acclaimed album Back to Black coincided with an incredibly tumultuous time in her life.

Winehouse battled alcohol and drug addictions. She was hospitalized multiple times, which is not shown in the film. Her volatile relationship with husband Blake Fielder-Civil was tabloid fodder, and the British press documented nearly every moment of the singer’s downward spiral. Winehouse eventually got clean from crack and heroin, but she died of alcohol poisoning in 2011.

Early reviews of Taylor-Johnson’s film out of the U.K. criticized how some of the difficult subject matter was handled, like eventual ex Fielder-Civil being portrayed as a sympathetic “addiction-enabler.” Yahoo asked Taylor-Johnson about how she creatively decided to handle humanizing Winehouse, and Fielder-Civil to an extent, while staying true to the addictions they suffered.

“Whatever our judgments are of situations that she was in or people that she loved, it was irrelevant to the story that I was telling because we were in her creative soul as she created one of the best albums of our time,” Taylor-Johnson explains. “[Amy] was so open about her feelings and so authentic to them and had no judgments, and so I had to be in her truth and put my feelings and everyone else’s judgments, as well, to one side and just go back to the music, and go back to how she felt constantly. So in a way it was obviously very challenging, but quite straightforward because she was [straightforward] in that sense.”

Taylor-Johnson has said the paparazzi are the villains in the movie. Winehouse and Fielder-Civil’s on-again, off-again relationship was fixated on in the press, and the Fifty Shades of Grey director has spoken about how her own marriage to actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 24 years her junior, has been scrutinized online. Yahoo asked if any part of Winehouse’s story resonated with her while making the movie.

“No, not in that way at all. I don’t feel like there’s any comparison I just felt like. … I guess a comparison is that, as a woman, I think things get more forensically picked apart,” she replies.

Taylor-Johnson continues, “So in that sense I have to just see, you know, who she was as a creative soul and that everything else is everyone else’s judgment,” she replies. “Let us celebrate her.”

Abela agrees with Taylor-Johnson on the importance of leaving judgments at the door. The British actress, who does her own singing in the movie, says she trained “intensely” for four months prior to filming. Although she knew Winehouse’s story, she says she was surprised to discover “the intensity of” that “feeling of Amy.”

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Back to Black.” (Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

“The feeling that the things she really wanted in life and the relationships she had that were important to her, were relationships that she felt that if they didn’t exist, she might die. The intensity of that feeling was something to discover and something to really get real,” she tells Yahoo. “As Sam was talking about, that’s not about judgment … it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If this person leaves me, I might die and that’s a real feeling. My job is to be authentic with that. If that’s how Amy felt, that’s what we were going to show.”

Back to Black hits theaters on Friday, May 17.

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