Back To Black hopes to remind audiences that Amy Winehouse was a talent not just a tragedy

Sam Taylor-Johnson wants her biopic to reframe the singer's legacy as more than just a tragic story.

Watch: How Back To Black attempts to reclaim Amy Winehouse's legacy

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson hopes her Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black will "give [the singer] her power back".

The Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey director tells Yahoo UK: "The tragedy and the sense of her being a victim was starting to overshadow who she was."

Lauded singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of 27. Her father Mitch Winehouse has subsequently been cast as the villain in the media, blamed for playing a key role in her downward spiral.

Mitch publicly denounced Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, Amy, telling The Guardian that the filmmakers were trying to portray him "in the worst possible light". But Mitch Winehouse has endorsed Back to Black, which shows his brilliant jazz-obsessed daughter as the centre of her story, a tortured genius for whom events conspired to tragically cut short her life.

LONDON - FEBRUARY 10:  British singer Amy Winehouse sits with her father Mitch as they await news of her Grammy Award at The Riverside Studios for the 50th Grammy Awards ceremony on February 10, 2008 in London, England. Winehouse won 5 out of her 6 nominations including, record of the year, best new artist, song of the year, pop vocal album and female pop vocal performance.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for NARAS)
Mitch Winehouse pictured with his daughter Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Grammy Awards in 2008, where she won five out of her six nominations. (Getty Images for NARAS)

"It was about time that a movie about Amy was from her point of view to reclaim that legacy as a musical artist," says Back to Black producer Alison Owen.

"To my mind, Amy is the greatest musical talent of the 21st century so far but her musical talent was in danger of being eclipsed by the tragedy of her death... what we wanted to do was to refocus on the music and let everybody be reminded of the triumph and that amazing talent.

"It was becoming entrenched in popular culture, that tragic image of her, and we wanted to get rid of that and punch the music through."

Amy is the greatest musical talent of the 21st century so farAlison Owens, Back To Black producer

Consequently, any 'villains' in the film are notably sidelined. While it’s possible to see that the people surrounding Amy made mistakes — and that includes another man in her life, former husband Blake Fielder-Civil, played by Jack O’Connell in the film — they’re seen as flawed, blind, sometimes even naive, rather than malicious or calculatingly self-serving.

"It isn’t a film that makes Mitch or Blake the villain but it doesn’t sanitise them," says Eddie Marsan, who plays Mitch Winehouse. "It shows the mistakes they made. But because it’s shot from Amy’s perspective, you can see why she fell in love with Blake, and you can see why she loved her dad, and I think that honours Amy more than a binary narrative."

Marisa Abela (Amy Winehouse) and Eddie Marsan (Mitch Winehouse) in Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Marisa Abela (Amy Winehouse) and Eddie Marsan (Mitch Winehouse) in Back To Black. (Studiocanal)

So why do we love to play the blame game in situations like Amy’s? Marsan speculates. "When someone like Amy dies so young, [someone] who’s touched our lives in such a profound way... there’s a collective trauma."

It isn’t a film that makes Mitch or Blake the villain, but it doesn’t sanitise themEddie Marsan, who plays Mitch Winehouse in Back To Black

"One of the ways you deal with trauma is you create a narrative to make sense of it. And a comfortable narrative for that kind of trauma is there must be someone to blame – because if my daughter doesn’t marry someone like Blake, or if I don’t behave the way they say Mitch behaves, this won’t happen to me. This won’t happen to my family. And that’s reassuring."

INDIO, CA - APRIL 27:  Singer Amy Winehouse kisses fiance Blake Fielder-Civil during day 1 of the Coachella Music Festival held at the Empire Polo Field on April 27, 2007 in Indio, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
Amy Winehouse with Blake Fielder-Civil at Coachella Music Festival in 2007. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

But, says Marsan, that’s not how addiction works. "Addiction is random, it’s arbitrary, it’s chaotic, it’s cruel. We all went to school with kids who have gone on to university and had brilliant lives and have got a brother or sister who's died of addiction.

"We all know those stories. And they have loving parents. So that’s not how addiction works. What I love about this film is that addiction is the villain. Addiction and the paparazzi."

Writer Matt Greenhalgh, who also penned the screenplays to acclaimed music biopics Nowhere Boy, about the young John Lennon, and Control, about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, says, "To the best of our ability, we just didn’t want to heap any more pain on the family."

Addiction is random, it’s arbitrary, it’s chaotic, it’s cruelEddie Marsan, who plays Mitch Winehouse in Back To Black

It was important to all involved that both Mitch and Amy’s mother Janis gave their blessing for the film to be made. But given Mitch’s endorsement, how involved was he exactly?

"He was as involved as any other members of the family in that we obviously wanted to talk to Mitch and Janis and get their recollections," says Alison Owen. "But they didn’t have any right of approval either legally or contractually.

"It’s just human, and courteous, to want to get everybody happy with the idea and I think they felt that we had everyone’s best interests at heart, we were passionate Amy fans, and we were the right people to do it."

Watch a trailer for Back To Black

Taylor-Johnson says it wasn’t necessary for Mitch or Janis to be on board to get Back to Black made, since the music rights were already in place, but it was important to show respect to Amy’s family.

"I was making a film about their daughter after all," says Taylor-Johnson. "I went to meet with Mitch, and Janis, and I spent a bit of time hearing stories and then invited them both to come to set on one of the days of filming. But it was really important to me that I could make the film creatively I wanted to make without anyone’s involvement – even the studio. I just was like, ‘No, this is the film I’m making so I’m going to zone everyone out.’

"That was so important for me as part of the creative process because the minute you start hearing voices it really affects how you shoot characters or see scenes. So I had to just be quite firm with everyone [and let them know] ‘I’m making this film.’"

Marisa Abela and Sam Taylor-Johnson on the set of Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Marisa Abela and Sam Taylor-Johnson on the set of Back To Black. (Studiocanal)

Marsan found Mitch’s involvement endlessly helpful. He was able to grill him at length ("I was a pain in the arse," he jokes) about his childhood, his grandparents, his great-grandparents, and more – even asking him for photographs of his school, and beyond that, information about his favourite restaurant and where the local cinema was.

"He even gave me a playlist of the music that he grew up with, and I got him to record Fly Me to the Moon for me because I wanted to emulate his voice for the film. To be honest with you, I’m more of a researcher than an actor," says Marsan.

"He was so generous. And he was very, very self-aware, and very candid and very honest. He doesn't want this film to sanitise him. He doesn't want that. He doesn’t want that because it doesn’t serve Amy in the slightest. But it doesn’t demonise him either."

[Mitch] doesn't want this film to sanitise himEddie Marsan, who plays Mitch Winehouse in Back To Black

Marsan is most proud about the fact that Back to Black is not only a celebration of Amy but it’s also a film that fosters sympathy for those with addiction issues.

"There’s a reason why recovery programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have the anonymous part,” says Marsan. “[It’s] because you need anonymity and privacy to recover. And Amy was never afforded that.

"She was hounded by the paparazzi and humiliated and mocked during her addiction … I hope [this film] will make people more compassionate to people who suffer from addiction, and their families. That’s what I hope."

Back to Black is in UK cinemas on 12 April.

Read more on Back To Black