‘There are parallels between Britney, Diana and Amy Winehouse... women picked on at their most vulnerable’

The film director Sam Taylor-Johnson talks about Back to Black, her new biopic about Amy Winehouse

In 2002, two London-based artists were preparing to make a splash. Sam Taylor-Johnson, who was then a recent Turner Prize nominee, unveiled David, a video portrait of a sleeping David Beckham, at the National Portrait Gallery and began work on her iconic collection Crying Men, a sequence featuring Gabriel Byrne, Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Sean Penn, Laurence Fishburne and Paul Newman in tears. Down the road, Amy Winehouse began to record her debut album, Frank. Both women were channelling Camden Town, the bustling, bohemian district where they lived.

“I saw her play at Ronnie Scott’s early on,” says Taylor-Johnson of Winehouse. “She was part of a new-voices evening. I went with a friend, and we just sat there thinking, What is this? How is this incredible voice coming from this tiny little creature? She seemed so very shy, almost as if she couldn’t bear to perform in front of all these people. Everyone else was still on stage and she was standing on the floor, with her head really low and singing out so loud. I had many friends who were friends with her, but it was really sliding doors. She would leave, and I’d arrive. She was a night owl, and I was home early because I had kids when I was quite young.”

By 2007 Winehouse had won two Ivor Novello songwriting awards. Her second LP, Back to Black, became one of the best-selling albums in UK history. The following year she won five Grammys, tying for what was then the most wins by a female artist on a single night. She was found dead from alcohol poisoning on July 23rd, 2011. She was 27.

Within months there was speculation about a Hollywood biopic – Noomi Rapace and Lady Gaga were mentioned. Then, in 2015, came Amy, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary. That film, which depicted the star being transported between performances while inebriated, rankled with Winehouse’s parents, Mitch and Janis.


So when Taylor-Johnson began to make Back to Black, her new biopic about the singer, she decided it was important to meet them. “I felt I’d be very disingenuous if I didn’t meet them. But it was also equally important that I had complete creative control. I couldn’t feel like I was being dictated to. It had to be how I wanted to make this film,” she says. Alison Owen, one of the film’s producers, gave her that assurance, “and we were lucky that Sony and Universal own all the music. I didn’t need anything from Mitch and Janis.

“I wouldn’t say we had their blessing, because I don’t think this was emotionally easy for them. It was more important that I listened to them and spent time with them. I invited both of them to set, and they came – these may be the parents of Amy Winehouse, but they’re still just parents and that’s their daughter. It was a tricky balance to maintain.”

As things turned out, all hell broke loose when early images emerged from the shoot of a beehived Marisa Abela as the singer. “Given the vulture-like efficiency with which her life was picked over, it’s near-impossible to think of a sincere reason to make a movie about Winehouse – at least not one that isn’t motivated by greed,” the London Independent remarked. “Is it possible to make a biopic about an exploited young star that isn’t itself exploitative?” the Guardian asked.

Such attention contributed to the all-consuming nature of the project. “The other day Aaron caught me talking to myself in the bathroom,” says the film-maker, referring to her husband, the (James Bond-linked) actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson. “He said, ‘Who are you talking to? Are you on the phone?’ I said, ‘Amy’. And he said, ‘Oh my God. You really need a break.’”

Concerns about the film’s approach should be allayed by the involvement of the warm, circumspect Taylor-Johnson, who has survived bowel cancer and breast cancer, and who radiates what can only be described as good energy. Speaking with her in London ahead of the film’s premiere, it’s clear that she is as protective of Amy as the most ardent online fan.

“My 12-year-old is totally into her in the same way that Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan are still on a lot of people’s playlists,” says Taylor-Johnson. “I wonder if it’s the level of emotion and soul that comes through that connects with people or just the reverberation of her voice. There’s something about that voice that penetrates. Yes, it’s the lyrics, and, yes, her voice is incredible. But there’s something else that connects right into the deep heart of who you are.”

As Winehouse, Marisa Abela gives a soulful performance in a film that chronicles the beginning of Winehouse’s career, her close bonds with her dad (played by Eddie Marsan) and her grandmother (Lesley Manville), and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell).

“The thing I really wanted to get across as much as possible was that she was absolutely authentic and truthful,” says Taylor-Johnson. “I think that’s why people love her. So many people are worried or clouded by what people think of them or how something will be received. She never gave that a second thought. She was: ‘This is who I am. This is my music. Take it or leave it.’ She was an incredible artist with so many layers: her Jewishness, her relationships, her honesty.”

I could find pictures from every single angle, which told me the story that she was constantly surrounded by anything from five to 12 men taking pictures. She was stalked

For Taylor-Johnson, focusing on Winehouse’s talent and sincerity is an important corrective. “I don’t write songs to be famous,” Abela says in the film’s opening scene. “I write songs because I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t. I want people to hear my voice and just forget their troubles.”

The film has a clear villain: Winehouse’s death was preceded by years of press intrusion, public scrutiny and cruel jokes. In 2006 an early boyfriend, Alex Clare, sold intimate details of their relationship to the News of the World, published under the gruesome headline “Bondage crazed Amy just can’t beehive in bed”. In the 2008 parody Disaster Movie, Matt Lanter’s caveman encounters a belching, sabre-toothed “Amy Winehouse” who pulls a bottle of whiskey from her beehive.

“Even when her Grammy nominations were announced, there was a lot of banter between all the people who were announcing the nominations,” says Taylor-Johnson. “And it just felt, like, ‘Does anyone ever think for a second that she may be in a vulnerable position, that she might need help?’ When I was doing research, if I googled any given day of Amy’s life, from a certain point, I could find pictures from every single angle, which told me the story that she was constantly surrounded by anything from five to 12 men taking pictures. She was stalked. She was picked apart until ultimately there wasn’t a lot left.

“I hope that we have a little bit of sense now, so that if people are struggling we leave them alone. But then look at Kate Middleton. Here’s somebody who is going through something horrendous, doesn’t feel she’s ready to speak about it, but has been forced to do so by speculation and attention. There are interesting parallels between Britney Spears, Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. These are women who get picked on at their most vulnerable. It felt like the right time to make this movie.”

Back to Black opens in cinemas on Friday, April 12th