Back To Black filmmakers explain why Marisa Abela was picked to play Amy Winehouse

How do you find an actor that can replicate Amy Winehouse's 'voice of a generation'?

Watch: Marisa Abela opens up about playing Amy Winehouse in Back To Black

The first question you might ask about Back To Black, the new Amy Winehouse biopic, is who on Earth could they cast that could possibly sing like Amy Winehouse, a talent hailed as having the best voice of a generation?

Who could embody a woman, described by Bob Dylan, as "the last real individualist around"; an artist ranked at number 83 in a 2023 Rolling Stone list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time?

The makers of Back to Black (centred around the time in Amy’s life when she recorded her seminal album of the same name), found a semblance of Winehouse magic in their lead, Marisa Abela. What they hadn’t expected was to find someone who could actually pull off the singing part — such is the reverence in which Winehouse’s vocal talent is held — and so hadn’t planned to have their lead sing in any part of the film.

Producer Alison Owen tells Yahoo UK that they had originally discussed a big name to take on the role. "If you’re making a film at a certain level, there’s always talk about famous [names], you know, established film stars," says the producer, whose credits include Saving Mr Banks, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Shaun of the Dead.

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back To Black. (Studiocanal)
Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back To Black. (Studiocanal)

"But given that we wanted to portray Amy from when she was 17 through 27, we wanted somebody who was pretty young, reasonably unknown, [and] we also wanted to document that journey from being unknown to being a worldwide iconic star.

"That’s much easier and more effective if you start with someone who’s not already an icon. Otherwise you’ve got too much baggage to undo before you start."

Casting director Nina Gold whittled some hopefuls down to a small pool but even then the choice was clear. "I have to say it was almost immediate that Marisa emerged as our Amy," says Owen.

"It was just inarguable in the way that it is sometimes. You looked at the pool and you were like, ‘Well, that’s her, that’s a good day’s work, we can all pack up and go home now’. She just embodied Amy. She didn’t do an impression of her. She didn’t do a rendering of her. She inhabited her."

Amy Winehouse (pictured in 2007) is the subject of Sam Taylor-Wood's new biopic Back To Black. (AP)
Amy Winehouse is the subject of Sam Taylor-Wood's new biopic Back To Black. (AP)

For Abela, the initial weight of expectation that comes with a role like this subsided after taking a step back.

"The audition is a long process so that feeling of ‘Wow, that will be a huge responsibility and a huge task’ comes when you first hear about it," says the Brighton-born actor, who had a small role in 2023 smash, Barbie.

"You take stock for a second and you think, ‘Okay, let’s take a look...’ I really wanted to — even before I started auditioning — research Amy as a person as well as the icon we all know. I think it was really that work that took me down the path [where] I was like, ‘Okay, if they’re going to make this film I really think I could be someone that could do this.’”

But did she know that she’d nail it?

"I did not know that I was going to nail it. I was very determined to get as close as possible to a sort of essence of her, a sense of her," says Abela.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Marisa Abela poses in the winners room at the 2024 EE BAFTA Film Awards at The Royal Festival Hall on February 18, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)
Marisa Abela rose to fame in the BBC's Industry. (Mike Marsland/WireImage)

Abela’s singing has already attracted some criticism from commentators aghast that she doesn’t sound exactly like Winehouse — surely an impossible task anyway — combined with an idea that it’s sacrilegious not to solely use Winehouse’s recorded voice.

Whatever your view, it’s certainly less jarring to the drama if a film can use ‘live’ in-camera singing over miming. Lip-synching can pull you out of the film. There are moments of lip synching in Back to Black, like most music biopics, and it’s never as effective as when you’re watching and hearing the voice coming out of Abela’s mouth.

I was very determined to get as close as possible to a sort of essence of her, a sense of herMarisa Abela, who plays Amy Winehouse in Back To Black

It’s fair to say Abela can belt out a tune. Could she already sing like that?

"It took a lot of practice, a lot of training,” she says. "I got the job about four months before we started filming and I trained every day for about two hours with my singing teacher. When I got the job, it wasn’t like I was definitely going to sing. About a month and a half into my lessons, my singing teacher rang Sam and said, ‘You should come and listen.’"

Abela’s singing lessons were meant to prepare her for miming to Winehouse’s songs, so that she was able to feel and understand how Winehouse’s voice and face could change in order to allow her to match the star.

"It slowly became apparent [through] the work they were doing together that Marisa’s voice just transformed," says Taylor-Johnson. "And as I got closer and closer, I started to think this could be possible; this could be incredible if we could use Marisa’s voice because then the storytelling within the film makes sense."

Marisa Abela sings Amy Winehouse's biggest hits in Back To Black. (Studiocanal/Alamy)
Marisa Abela sings Amy Winehouse's biggest hits in Back To Black. (Studiocanal/Alamy)

Writer Matt Greenhalgh — responsible for acclaimed music biopic screenplays Control, about the life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, and the Sam Taylor-Johnson-directed Nowhere Boy, about the young John Lennon — knew that Marisa Abela stood out a mile from the other auditionees.

“They had to sing Fly Me to the Moon,” he recalls. “We were trying to keep ourselves in the seat because we were just going, ‘This is mind-blowing stuff’. And then when she started reproducing that on set, it just made life so much easier — that she just sounds like Amy Winehouse.”

Back to Black opens in UK cinemas on 12 April.

Read more: Back To Black