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In 'Back to Black,' Marisa Abela prepared for hours to sing like Amy Winehouse


The British singer Amy Winehouse used her powerful voice to deliver vulnerable lyrics.


AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Meet you downstairs in the bar and hurt - your rolled-up sleeves and your skull T-shirt. You say, what did you do with him today? And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

INSKEEP: It's been more than a decade since Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. She released just two studio albums, "Frank" and "Back To Black," and the latter made her a superstar, earning her five Grammy awards, including record of the year. The love story that inspired "Back To Black" is the subject of a new biopic about Winehouse.


MARISA ABELA: (As Amy Winehouse) I don't write songs to be famous, do you know what I mean? I write songs 'cause I don't know what I'd do if I didn't. I've got to make something good out of something bad.

INSKEEP: Marisa Abela plays Winehouse in the film and spoke with A Martínez. He asked about the responsibility that comes with playing such a role, and Abela said she approached it with a sense of fearlessness.

ABELA: So there was no point in me trying to play an artist or try and play an icon or play to people's idea of what it needed to be. I had to play the truth of her and the truth of her story and of her love and her life and her wants and desires. And, you know, that is a big responsibility, but my main responsibility is to Amy, you know, to do her justice by telling her story authentically. I really think that people should lead their lives with bravery and with fearlessness and authenticity, rather than worrying what people will say.


You actually sang all the songs in the movie, which I think is going to surprise a lot of people. I mean, you pretty much nailed Amy Winehouse's sound. How did you do that?

ABELA: You know, I took lots of singing lessons and guitar lessons, and, you know, I surrounded myself with not only her music but the music that would have influenced Amy, so, you know, listening to, you know, people like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, women that would have inspired her, and just sort of letting that affect me first and then really leaning into her own music. But I think the most important thing for me always, the reason that, in the end, we chose to use my voice, was that I could continue to tell her emotional story throughout the songs. And these were the moments that Amy was most vulnerable with her audiences.

You know, every performance was different and every feeling that she was feeling would affect the way that she would sing a song. So if I'm singing "(There Is) No Greater Love" as Amy to Blake, it has to sound like a woman that is full of love and desire for this specific man, for her husband, in the same way that if I'm doing the Grammys performance of "Rehab," you know, to a room full of people that never thought they'd see the day that I - that Amy was sober, and I'm winning five Grammys - that changes the way that you sing a song as well.


ABELA: (As Amy Winehouse, singing ) I've forgotten all of young love's joy. Feel like a lady, and you my lady boy. You should be stronger than me.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, in this scene from the film, Amy was told by her team that she needed to brighten up her act on stage. Let's listen to that.


ABELA: (As Amy Winehouse) I get really nervous when I get up on stage, and now you've gone and basically told me I haven't got any stage presence. Great.

SAM BUCHANAN: (As Nick Shymansky) Amy...

ABELA: (As Amy Winehouse) That's really...

BUCHANAN: (As Nick Shymansky) ...No. That wasn't...

ABELA: (As Amy Winehouse) ...Going to help my - oh, f*** off, Nick. I'm not Cole Porter, Nick. I don't wake up in the morning and bang out 10 hits by lunch. I need to live my songs.

MARTÍNEZ: Marisa, I mean, she says, I need to live my songs. What do you think that meant to Amy Winehouse, to live her song?

ABELA: I think that, you know, Amy's music was incredibly personal, and it was about what she was experiencing. And I think it didn't mean anything to her to create art that was imaginative.

MARTÍNEZ: "Back To Black" was inspired by her relationship with her boyfriend and husband, Blake. In the film, Marisa, it looked like Amy was basically the moth to his flame. What do you think was behind her desire to be with someone who clearly seemed like he was kind of destructive in her life?

ABELA: I think that, you know, she fell in love. And it's hard to describe what happens when someone falls in love. I think that, you know, Blake was someone that was exciting to Amy. I think that, you know, she was an incredibly powerful, forceful woman. And here was someone that was - I think she felt matched up. And, you know, Amy craved an intensity of feeling. The love that she felt that she could understand was a love that was all-consuming and completely overwhelming. I think Amy was one of those people that felt that if she could live without something, she didn't necessarily want it.

We have to remember, as well, when she met Blake and wrote the album of "Back To Black," she was 23 years old. I mean, it's so young. We're not talking about a woman who's, like, lived a life and has learned and grown from experiences in her, you know, 40s, 50s. We're talking about a woman who was catapulted into fame in the U.K. when she was 19 years old, a young woman, a really, really young woman. You know, unfortunately, Amy's life was incredibly short.

MARTÍNEZ: What a kind of thing to square - right? - considering who she was and what she meant to the world. And can you imagine if your career was just judged on your first 27 years, your whole life was judged on your first 27 years?

ABELA: There's been a temptation to try and make sense of the tragedy for a long time, and the sort of narrative around Amy Winehouse for a long time has been, you know, about what happened and what went wrong, you know, this relationship, these drugs and the tragedy. And I think that remembering her as a great artist and using "Back To Black" as an album as the framework for a story in, like, our film - you know, it really gives her the power back that I think that she deserves as a legend.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Marisa Abela, who plays singer Amy Winehouse in the biopic "Back To Black." Marisa, thank you very much.

ABELA: Thank you so much.


WINEHOUSE: (Singing) We only said goodbye with words. I died a hundred times. You go back to her, and I go back to - we only... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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