‘Back to Black’: everything we know about the Amy Winehouse biopic so far

The controversial movie has a UK release date and a new look at its star

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Back to Black
Photograph: Studiocanal

It’s fair to say that news of a new Amy Winehouse biopic did not go down universally well with the internet when filming started on ‘Back to Black’ in January 2023. The first paparazzi shots of the London shoot melted some corners of social media down into a big morass of rage and horror. 

But judging a film by a few out-of-context pap shots snatched around London may yet prove hasty. Back to Black has a pedigree filmmaker-artist behind the camera in Sam Taylor-Wood, a friend of Winehouse’s, and the full backing of Winehouse’s estate, family and record label. Her friends and her public, however, are yet to be convinced. There’s a lot going on, in other words. Here’s what we know so far.

What is the Amy Winehouse biopic ‘Back to Black’ about?

According to the official blurb, the film will tackle Amy Winehouse’s (Marisa Abela) ‘vibrant years living in London in the early aughts and her intense journey to fame’. 

In other words, Back to Black will chart the Grammy-winner superstar’s rise to fame, as well as her struggles with addiction, frequent run-ins with the tabloid press, and ultimately, her death from alcohol poisoning in 2011, aged just 27.

Behind the camera is another Londoner, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is best known in filmmaking circles as the director of 50 Shades of Grey, Nowhere Boy and another tale of addiction, 2018’s misery-lit adaptation A Million Little Pieces.

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‘The film is believed to be very much a passion project for Taylor-Johnson, who was a close friend of Winehouse’s,’ notes Variety.

‘My connection to Amy began when I left college and was hanging out in the creatively diverse London borough of Camden,’ says Taylor-Johnson, who recalls working at the Koko Club and connecting with Winehouse’s songs and a shared love of Camden. ‘I first saw her perform at a talent show at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho and it was immediately obvious she wasn’t just “talent”, she was genius. As a filmmaker you can’t really ask for more.’

The Back to Black script comes from Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who has plenty of previous when it comes to biopics.

On Greenhalgh’s CV are Nowhere Boy (about John Lennon), The Look of Love (strip-club owner Paul Raymond), Control (Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis) and Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (fading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame).

Amy Winehouse
Photograph: Jo Hale, Getty

Who will be in the cast of Amy Winehouse biopic? 

The headline act, Marisa Abela, will be a familiar face to fans of the HBO/BBC banking-and-bonking drama Industry. The 26-year-old Brighton-born actress is best known for playing well-heeled investment banker Yasmin Kara-Hanani in the show and is also starring in this summer’s Barbie.

The actress has undergone an ‘Amy boot camp’, involving guitar lessons, fitness training and two vocal coaches – one to capture her character’s singing voice, the other to nail her North London accent. She’s also talked about the process of losing weight to play the role on the Beyond the Lights podcast. 

Co-starring with Abela are Starred Ups Jack O’Connell, who’s playing Winehouse’s boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil, and Happy-Go-Lucky’s Eddie Marsan as her dad, Mitch. Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) is playing her grandma Cynthia Winehouse – aka ‘Nan Cynthie’ – who has jazz ties of her own, having been a singer herself who once dated Ronnie Scott.

When will ‘Back to Black’ be released?

A UK and Irish release date has now been set: it’ll be in cinemas on April 12, 2024. 

What has Amy’s family said about the biopic?

The Winehouse estate reportedly signed a deal for the film back in 2018, so their approval is taken as read. Nonetheless, Mitch Winehouse has recently given his explicit blessing to the casting of Abela as his late daughter, describing it as a ‘great choice’ in a TMZ interview

Winehouse Sr was famously – and publicly – riled by his negative portrayal in Asif Kapadia’s 2015 doc, Amy. It’d be a surprise, then, if he hasn’t signed off on Back to Black’s on-screen depiction of his relationship with Amy.

Back to Black
Photograph: Studiocanal

Why is it proving so controversial?

So far, friends and fans of the singer are proving harder to win round. Much of the criticism comes from a perception that, only a decade on from her death, it’s ‘too soon’ to sensitively dramatise her life. 

Other criticisms have zeroed in Abela’s lack of physical resemblance to Winehouse, complaints that have had Mitch Winehouse pointing out that Eddie Marsan ‘doesn’t look anything like him either’.

Will this be another Bohemian Rhapsody, smoothed out and sanitised by family members eager to be portrayed in a positive light, as with Bohemian Rhapsody and the surviving members of Queen? It’s worth remembering that Taylor-Wood has past experience in dealing with outside voices: she famously walked away from the 50 Shades sequel after falling out with novelist E. L. James.

Clearly, Back to Black has a tricky line to walk: too gritty and it will seem exploitative; too airbrushed and it will fail its protagonist’s memory in an entirely different way. 

Its filmmaker is vowing to toe that line carefully. ‘I am fully aware of the responsibility,’ says Taylor-Wood. ‘I will create a movie that we will all love and cherish forever. Just like we do Amy.’  

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