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What the Amy Winehouse movie gets right

May 18, 20245 Mins Read


Spoiler alert! We’re discussing specific scenes from the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black” (in theaters now), so beware if you haven’t seen it yet.

The life of Amy Winehouse was hardly a mystery. Between her huge hits (“Rehab,” “Valerie,” “Back to Black”) and toxic, drug-fueled relationship, the media tracked her every move.

But that super-saturated coverage steered director Sam Taylor-Johnson in another direction. After spending two-and-a-half years researching her famous subject for the movie “Back to Black,” she simply returned to the records.

“Everything about Amy was so voyeuristic, that terrible and constant picking apart of her life,” she says of the singer and songwriter, who died from alcohol poisoning at 27 in 2011. “I thought it was time to go back to the music. Her lyrics could tell her story.”

But Taylor-Johnson still had to make artistic choices about how to represent episodes in Winehouse’s well-documented life in a way that allowed for creative license without straying from the true story.

The director breaks down those depictions for USA TODAY:

Did Amy Winehouse really meet Blake Fielder-Civil while playing pool at a neighborhood bar?

Winehouse (Marisa Abela) met her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell) at a local pub in Camden, north of London. The two played pool and forged an immediate bond. But the details of what they actually did and said had to be conjured up to a large degree.

“On the script, it just said, ‘They play pool,’ but it took me three days to shoot it,” says Taylor-Johnson with a laugh. “You had to really believe that this connection was strong.”

The director says they did have the specific drinks depicted in the movie, and Fielder-Civil was there bantering with his friends about a bet he’d made. But once he met Winehouse, the dialogue between the two was invented. “I had to find the books and music they both liked to build a scenario.”

One twist in the scene was real. At first, Fielder-Civil doesn’t let on that he knows who Winehouse is, but late in their chat reveals that he’s fully aware his new friend is famous, thanks to her debut album “Frank.”

“There’s no doubt he knew who she was instantly, because if you lived in Camden as they did, she was in all those places,” says Taylor-Johnson.

Did Amy Winehouse really want to have a baby, even as she struggled with substance abuse?

Throughout “Back to Black,” Winehouse repeatedly mentions her fierce desire to have a baby, if not a large family. She came from a tight-knit Jewish clan, and despite or maybe because of her parents’ divorce, she yearned for stability.

“Friends around her have said this was the case, and my screenwriter Matt (Greenhalgh) said it kept coming up in interviews (Amy) did,” says Taylor-Johnson. “In fact, she said, ‘I want six kids, I want a big family.’ So I felt we had to acknowledge that. It also makes for a more well-rounded person than the one that has been projected onto the world.”

That dream ultimately is what led to her demise. She and Fielder-Civil form a terrible codependent relationship anchored to hardcore drug and alcohol use, which leads to Fielder-Civil’s arrest for assault. In the movie, he goes to prison, gets rehabbed while in prison, and concludes that his marriage to Winehouse is not healthy. He starts a new relationship and fathers a child, a fact Winehouse learns from paparazzi camped outside her door. Although she’s in rehab herself, the news upends her and ultimately leads to her death.

“There was a lot of collapsing of time going on in that scene, because it was really a while where he’s moved on and she was struggling to move on,” Taylor-Johnson says. “But it’s absolutely true that she heard about Blake having a child with another woman from the photographers outside.”

Was Amy Winehouse’s performance at Glastonbury Festival as erratic and magnetic as seen in ‘Back to Black’?

In 2008, Winehouse performed at Britain’s famous Glastonbury Festival, a huge multi-artist outdoor event that routinely attracts the world’s top talent. But addled by her substance abuse, Winehouse tussled with fans verbally and physically, at one point chastising the crowd for booing her jailed husband.

In “Back to Black,” that festival appearance is re-created with great accuracy by both Abela as Winehouse and Taylor-Johnson’s set department. In fact, she says, it was “the first time the festival organizers had agreed to let a movie re-create their event.”

Particularly impressive is that Taylor-Johnson did so not on location but inside a studio with about 200 extras. Meanwhile, Abela endlessly studied videos of Winehouse’s performance in order to get, Taylor-Johnson says, “every hand and finger gesture, every eye roll, every nuance. We had one video showing the real performance next to a monitor showing what we were shooting.”

The accuracy was critical, she says, “because anyone can pull that up on YouTube and compare it. We’re proud of what we got.”

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