How Should an Amy Winehouse Movie Be?

In another life, Sam Taylor-Johnson might have crossed paths with Amy Winehouse. The filmmaker and the singer had some mutual friends, “but we never met,” Taylor-Johnson said recently. “It was like a strange sliding doors moment,” she added: “I would arrive somewhere, and she would have just left.”

Taylor-Johnson is the director of “Back to Black,” a new biopic about Winehouse that stars Marisa Abela (“Industry”) as the beloved British singer. In the 13 years since Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning in her North London home at age 27, there has been a posthumous album, a tell-all memoir from her father, an Oscar-winning documentary and several museum exhibitions about her life.

Some of these projects — most notably the 2015 documentary, “Amy” — emphasized how ferocious public and tabloid interest in her personal life fueled Winehouse’s addictions. (In a review of that documentary for The Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “What’s startling now is to realize that we were all watching her die.”)

For Taylor-Johnson, it was time to create a narrative that celebrated Winehouse for “her great achievements,” she said. A documentary is a forensic breakdown of someone’s life, Taylor-Johnson added, whereas she saw her own film as “more poetic.”

“Back to Black,” which opens in theaters in the United States on May 17, revolves around Winehouse’s turbulent relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, an on-off romance that inspired the artist’s soul-inflected album of the same name. “She tells her story through the narrative of her songs,” said Taylor-Johnson. Using the lyrics as the movie’s main source material put Winehouse’s perspective at the center, she said.

When “Back to Black” arrived in Britain and Ireland last month, it reached No. 1 at the box office, taking in 2.8 million pounds, or $3.4 million, on its opening weekend. But it divided critics. “There is real grit to the performances,” said a review in The Irish Times, while The Observer’s critic winced at the movie’s “catastrophic misjudgments.”

The film also polarized people who knew Winehouse. Her friend Tyler James complained that it “sugarcoated” Winehouse’s life, but Fielder-Civil, who is portrayed in the film by Jack O’Connell, described watching it as “almost therapeutic.”

In a video interview from her London home a week after the film’s British premiere, Taylor-Johnson said she had been ignoring the reviews. “I read nothing, and if a friend starts to tell me, I hang up on them,” the director said. “I don’t want to be thrown off my path.”

To realize Winehouse’s forceful mix of wit, bawdiness and vulnerability, the production needed to find the right actress. Abela, who, like Winehouse, is Jewish, said in a video interview that she and the singer shared “a similar background.” She also connected with the singer’s intense drive, she said. “If she’s on a path, she’s going to zoom down it, hard and fast,” Abela said.

She had scrutinized the singer’s mannerisms, she added, working with a movement teacher to perfect them. She also tried to understand what was behind the singer’s tics: Did Winehouse become more strained in her movements “because she’s irritated and wants to be taken seriously as a jazz singer?” Abela said she had wondered.

Although Abela and Taylor-Johnson both said they wanted the movie to highlight Winehouse’s musical achievements, her creative process receives little screen time. Mark Ronson, the American producer who collaborated with Winehouse on “Back to Black,” is absent, for instance, since he didn’t fit with the focus on Winehouse and Fielder’s “powerful, intoxicating, and toxic love story,” Taylor-Johnson said.

O’Connell plays Fielder-Civil with a wily, bad-boy swagger, in a much less skeptical take on Winehouse’s ex-husband than in Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy,” which presented Fielder-Civil as an opportunist. “When you’re in Amy’s perspective, our judgment of Blake is irrelevant. She loves Blake,” Taylor-Johnson said.

In real life, Fielder-Civil has admitted that he introduced the singer to heroin, but in the movie, Winehouse starts taking hard drugs alone. Taylor-Johnson said it was her responsibility to acknowledge Winehouse’s struggles with depression, addiction and bulimia, “but not to in any way glamorize, or show in multiple scenes.”

Abela said that she didn’t think Winehouse’s life had to be sanitized for the biopic, but “Back to Black” does omit certain events, including part of an infamous 2008 Glastonbury performance in which Winehouse appeared to drunkenly punch a fan while singing “Rehab.” When the film recreates the Glastonbury appearance, Winehouse sings “Me and Mr. Jones” and doesn’t hit anyone.

“There’s something incredibly tragic about singing ‘Rehab’ when you’re wasted, right?” Abela said. As an alternative, the film shows Winehouse performing “Rehab” in sober triumph on the night she won five Grammys. “That’s where we chose to show the song,” Abela said.

Winehouse was not “thrusting her self-destruction onto the world,” she added: “It wasn’t like Amy was on Instagram and posting pictures of her ballet pumps falling apart.” She said that the heightened love story depicted in the album “Back to Black” was “what Amy said she wanted her legacy to be.” This biopic, Abela added, was a way of honoring that.

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