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Mitch Winehouse was on the hunt for "an unknown, young, English actress with a Cockney London accent who somewhat resembled Amy." Marisa Abela (Brighton, 1996) may not have seemed to fit the mold at first, but a couple of auditions were enough to convince both her father and director Sam Taylor-Johnson that she was the perfect fit to embody the immortal performer of Back to Black.
To seal the deal, Marisa Abela committed to a tailored five-month training program led by musical specialist Anne Marie Speed. The actress learned to sing and play the guitar, adhered to a strict diet, engaged in intense gym sessions, took accent lessons, and underwent a profound physical and mental transformation to step into the shoes and voice of Amy Winehouse.
"It's full-time preparation, it's like an athlete," revealed Speed to The Guardian. "People really underestimate how challenging physical voice production can be. They don't see it, but it really is. You've got to get the body working in the right way to truly support what's happening and to produce the voice in that way."
The trailer for Back to Black, set to hit screens in April, speaks volumes. Despite the discontent of some fans, who consider that it is too soon to see the "reincarnation" of Amy Winehouse, the result is nothing short of astonishing, beyond the retro hairstyles, excessive mascara, and short skirts.
It's not exactly an "impersonation," but industry experts acknowledge right away that Abela has managed to capture the essence and even emulate Amy Winehouse's distinct and incomparable voice, in the same way that the Oscar-winning Rami Malek managed to echo Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
"I wanted to use my body as an instrument," Abela herself admitted when the first images of the filming in London were released. After all, acting runs in her family: her mother, Caroline Gruber, is a theater actress, and her father, Angelo Abela, was a comedian before he became a stage director.
With Polish and Russian blood on her mother's side, and Maltese and Libyan ancestry on her father's, Abela's unique heritage also includes being Jewish, just like Amy Winehouse. Her parents tried to dissuade her from following in their footsteps, and she was tempted to become a human rights lawyer. However, she ultimately graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
At the age of 11, she made a brief appearance in Man in a Box, filmed in her hometown of Brighton. Her television debut was in the thriller COBRA, but her breakthrough to fame happened two years ago in the BBC and HBO series Industry, in which she played Yasmin Kara-Hanani, the "underestimated" daughter of a wealthy Lebanese family mingling with young aspiring executives in the City of London.
Industry, which made headlines for its explicit sex scenes, catapulted her career. In 2022, she appeared in She is Love and Rogue Agent, and in 2023, she was seen in Barbie in a minor role. Working under Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham at just 25 was "every actress's dream," culminating at 27 with her role under Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction.
For Taylor-Johnson, who got to know Amy Winehouse during her Camden years and resonated with her voice at an early concert in Soho, Back to Black feels like a return to her roots. Her reputation was initially established with a musical film, Nowhere Boy, depicting John Lennon's life in Liverpool. In 2015, she stumbled with the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey to the point of nearly abandoning her cinematic career.
Mitch Winehouse, overseeing the production from start to finish, immediately connected with the director and claims to have given her artistic freedom. However, his presence in the background has also sparked concerns about a possibly softened version of the mental health and addiction struggles that led to Amy's premature death at just 27.
Back to Black chronicles the rise to fame of Camden's beloved star. The biopic, in its own way, serves as a response from Mitch Winehouse, who strongly criticized the portrayal of his daughter and her tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil in the documentary Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, which won an Oscar in 2015. In 2021, the BBC produced another critically acclaimed documentary, Reclaiming Amy, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of her death.