Back to Black Amy Winehouse

Sam Taylor-Johnson, director of the new Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black, wants to correct a “massive” misconception that Winehouse’s family had any control over her film chronicling the brilliant singer’s rise and tragic death at just 27.

She told MovieMaker at the SCAD Lacoste Film Festival, where Back to Black played last week to an enthusiastic audience, that one of her first questions to Back to Black producer Alison Owen was who owned the rights to Winehouse’s music. A deceased singer’s family can sometimes use music rights as leverage to make sure they like posthumous biopics.

“When she asked me, I said, ‘Is the family, or anyone, gonna hold anything, like music rights, against me? Or do they have script approval? And she said no. And I said I can’t do it creatively with somebody saying, ‘Oh I don’t like the way you’ve done that,’ or ‘This was wrong,'” Taylor-Johnson told MovieMaker. “I had complete carte blanche in that way.”

Back to Black director Sam Taylor-Johnson at the SCAD Lacoste Film Festival. Photography Courtesy of SCAD

Owen added at the SCAD Lacoste screening of Back to Black that Winehouse’s family had no control over the music because they had made the decision to sell their daughter’s catalogue.

Still, Taylor-Johnson did seek out a meeting with Winehouse’s parents, Mitch Winehouse (played by Eddie Marsan in the film) and Janis Winehouse (Juliet Cowan), both of whom are treated sympathetically in Back to Black.

“What I did do, out of respect, is meet with Mitch and Janis… because I thought, if I’m making a film about their daughter, it would be wrong if I didn’t sit with them. And I wanted them to feel heard.”

She felt like most of the Amy Winehouse stories were already in the public record, but did learn of something from Janis Winehouse that ended up serving as a crucial metaphor in Back to Black.

“Janis told me that Amy had a canary that she was deeply connected to, and that when it died, they had to drive to a cemetery and perform a proper burial, and that she sang and that she wrote the song ‘October Sun,’ which is on her first album, about this canary.

“And I thought, well if it’s that significant in her life, the analogy isn’t lost on me, of this fragile songbird. And so that was from Janis, and that’s in the movie, and that probably was the most important thing from their stories that I took.”

Taylor-Johnson didn’t meet with Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse’s ex husband and a key character in the film — though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Fielder-Civil has often been blamed in the tabloid press for contributing to Winehouse’s troubles with drugs and alcohol. She died on July 23, 2011 from alcohol poisoning at home in her beloved Camden Town, London.

“We had three scheduled and canceled meetings and I think he was afraid of judgment, because that was his experience, and afraid of what story I was gonna tell. But Jack O’Connell, who plays him, they met. I would have liked to have met him.”

How Blake Fielder-Civil and Amy Winehouse’s Parents Reacted to Back to Black

Fielder-Civil said in an interview with Good Morning Britain in April that watching the film was “surreal” for him, but he appreciated that it “wasn’t all about addiction.”

His interviewer on Good Morning Britain noted that some critics have accused the film of treating him too gently. He said O’Connell was a “really, really, really good guy” who wasn’t interested in perpetuating tabloid narratives about the relationship.

Mitch and Janis Winehouse have endorsed Back to Black, and attended the film’s premiere in April.

Sam Taylor-Johnson received the Outstanding Achievement in Directing Award at the SCAD Lacoste Film Festival, which handed out awards to prominent creators at the SCAD Lacoste campus in the gorgeous village of Lacoste in the Provence region of France. Back to Black and the other films — including Gladiator and Amelie — played for a lawn of grateful students alongside a shimmering pool, not far from lavender fields and cherry orchards, under the twinkling lights of the medieval village of Lacoste.

The evening ended with Taylor-Johnson and her husband, actor Aaron Taylor Johnson, posing for photos with SCAD students and other attendees.

Main image: Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black. Studiocanal.

Back to Black is now available on video on demand.