• Entertainment
  • movies

A Guide to the Real-Life Figures in the Amy Winehouse Biopic Back to Black

11 minute read

Sam Taylor Johnson’s hotly anticipated Amy Winehouse biopic, Back to Black, was contested by the late musician’s fans from the day it was announced. For some, it felt too soon following Winehouse’s untimely death in 2011; for others, a musical drama invited the possibility of caricature at best and exploitation at worst.

Fresh in the mind of Winehouse fans was Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, Amy, which shed light on her on-and-off romantic relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced the young singer to hard drugs, and her father, who has disputed the film’s depiction of him as greedy and uncaring.

Matt Greenhalgh, Back to Black’s screenwriter, said he was less interested in telling the stories already out in the public. Instead, his writing focused on moments of lightness rather than darkness, Greenhalgh tells TIME. The film, with Winehouse played by Marisa Abela, charts her rise to global prominence, as well as the recording of her 2006 album, also called Back to Black, which was largely inspired by her struggles with addiction and her breakup with Fielder-Civil (played by Jack O'Connell).

“There is always a dark cloud to have with Amy's legacy and we felt that we should also be celebrating, because we had 10 fantastic years of that music. The music still exists and she still lives on,” Greenhalgh says. In the days after Greenhalgh spoke to TIME, Winehouse was awarded a posthumous BRIT Billion Award by the British Phonographic Industry—honoring one billion digital streams.

Back to Black also seeks to show the joy Winehouse felt in London's live music venues and around her family, especially her father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and grandmother, Cynthia Levy (Lesley Manville), as well as her love for Fielder-Civil. But despite its depiction of Winehouse surrounded by loved ones, Greenhalgh says the film does not seek to absolve anyone involved in Winehouse's tragic death from alcohol poisoning at 27. “I do think they still come out with their faults but there's just a different perspective,” he adds.

The film has also made notable choices about whom to omit, including Mark Ronson, who produced the namesake album, and Reg Traviss, Winehouse’s fiance in the last two years of her life. As fans continue to unpack how true to life the biopic is, here’s what to know about the real figures in Winehouse’s life.

Cynthia Levy

One of the first characters we meet in Back to Black is Cynthia Levy, Winehouse’s paternal grandmother. Born in 1927, Levy was a jazz singer in her own right who was romantically involved with saxophonist and club owner Ronnie Scott.

The film opens with Winehouse looking at old photographs of her grandmother, whom she describes as “the ultimate ‘50s pin up girl.” As Winehouse marvels at snapshots of her at London’s iconic Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, her grandmother tells her about all the famed musicians she met there, naming Ella Fitzgerald, Matt Monro, and Tony Bennett. Winehouse’s love of music and jazz knowledge was heavily influenced by her grandmother’s own successful career as a singer. She is also credited with teaching Winehouse how to style her hair into the beehive, a ‘60s style that would become the singer’s trademark. 

“Finding out how much Amy relied on her, not only for a musical sort of education, but just as a person that understood her, was great for me,” says Greenhalgh “It's a character that I could come to quite fresh because no one really knew about her. There were no preconceived ideas about Cynthia.”

Over the course of the film, we witness a number of intimate moments between Winehouse and her grandmother; they take walks, discuss Winehouse’s love life, and—in a darker moment—Levy cares for Winehouse when she blacks out from intoxication. These tender moments make it sting even more when Levy is diagnosed with lung cancer and dies shortly before the Back to Black album is released. In tribute to her late grandmother, Winehouse had a tattoo of her name on her right arm.

“[Winehouse’s] downfall—the hard drug taking—coincided with Cynthia's death and that's kind of been overlooked a little bit,” Greenhalgh adds. Levy died in May 2006 and was buried at Edgwarebury Lane Jewish Cemetery, where later Winehouse’s ashes would be buried alongside her. 

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Eddie Marsan as Mitch WinehouseCourtesy of Focus Features

Mitch Winehouse

Back to Black begins with Winehouse surrounded by her father’s warm Jewish family singing together before he takes her to her mother’s home. It is clear that the couple are separated and Mitch Winehouse acknowledges that his relationship with Winehouse’s mother is rocky. Throughout the film, Mitch plays a prominent part in Winehouse’s career and personal life, offering his opinion on her stage presence as well as her choice of husband. Mitch is deeply concerned when Winehouse elopes with Fielder-Civil in Miami. He is also shown making choice decisions about Winehouse’s wellbeing and addiction; when she does eventually go to a rehab facility it is her father who takes her there.

Mitch Winehouse was born in 1950 to a Jewish family of Belarusian heritage in North London. He worked as a taxi driver for most of his life, and married Winehouse’s mother Janis in 1976. The couple welcomed their son Alex in 1979, followed by Amy in 1983. Mitch and Janis separated after he began an affair with a woman named Jane whom he worked with. Mitch remained with Jane for 31 years before they separated in 2023. As Winehouse’s Daddy’s Girl tattoo suggests, the two were extremely close. 

While the film and popular belief suggests Mitch Winehouse did not think his daughter needed to go to a rehab center, he has previously said he took her to get sober a number of times after the infamous song was released.

After the release of Kapadia’s documentary Amy, Mitch Winehouse became a controversial figure, with many accusing him of exploiting his daughter’s fame and legacy. But Greenhalgh says that’s just one perspective on Mitch, and one he does not subscribe to. 

“I don't particularly believe that Mitch killed his daughter. He has his faults but I think he always loved his daughter,” says Greenhalgh. “There was no point in trying to rehash that sort of storyline of Mitch being manipulative and totally about himself because there was love there, lots of love.” 

Mitch now runs The Amy Winehouse Foundation for young people struggling with drug addiction and homelessness.

Janis Collins

Winehouse’s mother, then named Janis Winehouse (played by Juliet Cowan), has very little screen time in Back to Black. Winehouse is seen writing songs in her bedroom at Janis’ house and later welcoming her mother on stage as she wins the 2008 Grammy Award for best album, but Collins makes few appearances between these moments.

Greenhalgh says this decision was a structural one due to Amy’s parents being divorced. “If she was with Mitch, she wouldn't be with Janis. So you can't have everyone in the same scene. Janis was another agonizing character that we wanted to put more into, but we just couldn't,” he says. 

A retired pharmacist, Collins separated from Mitch when Winehouse was nine. She remarried, to Richard Collins, in 2011. In 2014, Collins released a memoir titled Loving Amy: A Mother's Story, in which she details her daughter’s life, struggles, and legacy. Collins also worked on the 2021 documentary Reclaiming Amy to mark the 10 year anniversary of her daughter’s death. Collins, who had experienced symptoms of multiple sclerosis for over 20 years before being diagnosed, said she undertook the project as her condition "threatens to strip her of her memories of Amy."

(L to R) Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O'Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil in director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back to Black. Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features—© 2024 Focus Features, LLC.

Blake Fielder-Civil

Back to Black depicts Winehouse and Fielder-Civil’s first meeting almost exactly as it happened. According to an interview with the Daily Mail, Fielder-Civil arrived at the Good Mixer, a pub in London’s Camden neighborhood after a big gambling win and Winehouse was the first person he saw there. He was working as a production assistant and, despite going home with Winehouse, he had a girlfriend at the time. “The drinks were on me for the first and last time!” he told the tabloid of their meeting.

The film takes the time to show us the joyful aspects of their relationship, from discussing music on the pub jukebox to a date at the zoo. Greenhalgh said he wanted to show “the fun sides” to their relationship that have been historically overlooked. 

“If we respect Amy, we have to see why she loved him,” Greenhalgh says. “They were codependent and they both had issues. But at the same time, I do think there was an absolute connection of minds,” he says, adding that if they had both become sober they could have been compatible.

Among Winehouse fans, Fielder-Civil is a contentious figure often blamed for giving her hard drugs. He has spoken about his “regret” over this, saying that he only put up a “weak resistance" when Winehouse asked to use his drugs. While under the influence the couple had a tumultuous and violent relationship. The couple were often on-again and off-again, before they married in Miami in 2007, a marriage that lasted just two years, including the 12 months  Fielder-Civil served in jail for assaulting a bar owner. They divorced in 2009, with Fielder-Civil citing Winehouse’s infidelity. 

In an interview with the ITV show Good Morning Britain in September 2023, Fielder-Civil said he had spent a decade carrying the “burden” of his responsibility in her tragedy. He later remarried and has two children with now ex-wife, Sarah Aspin.

As Back to Black hit U.K. cinemas, Fielder-Civil returned to Good Morning Britain to discuss the film, describing it as “almost therapeutic” for its “more accurate” depiction of their relationship. “There was addiction, but it was only an aspect. The relationship started like every relationship does,” he said. 

Nick Shymansky

Nick Shymansky worked as Winehouse's manager from 1999 until 2006, having met the singer when she was just a 16 year old who had dropped out of a performing arts school. Shymansky, who has written extensively about working with Winehouse, was also a teenager new to working in the music industry. 

In a 2015 interview with The Guardian, he said he tried to win Winehouse over by talking up his experience. “She flicked my ego away like it was a pea on my shoulder, and I realized humor was the backup plan, and that’s how we connected,” he said. 

Shymansky says Winehouse sent him two tapes with her songs on and it wasn’t long before producers he knew were chomping at the bit to work with her. Winehouse signed to Simon Fuller's 19 Management in 2002 and began recording her debut album Frank, released in 2003. 

“It was my job to get her from A to B. If I booked a session and didn’t literally get her out of bed, in the car, drop her off, pick her up, sit in on the session, it just wouldn't happen,” he told The Guardian. Shymansky would often go “above and beyond'' the call of duty, according to Greenhalgh. 

In Back to Black, Shymansky is seen breaking down the door to Winehouse’s home after she has passed out intoxicated and cut her head. In the film, as in life, it is Shymansky who starts the conversation about Winehouse needing to go to rehab. According to Shymansky, Mitch Winehouse allegedly agreed with his daughter’s assessment that it was not necessary, although he has since disputed this. The encounter formed the basis of Winehouse's hit single Rehab

Shymansky was replaced by Raye Cosbert, Winehouse's promoter, shortly after and her career took off just as the two parted ways professionally.  

Winehouse’s band

While little time in the film is spent on individual members of Winehouse’s band offstage, they remain an integral aspect of the film's recreations of her key performances. They can be seen during a hard-to-watch 2008 Glastonbury performance in which Winehouse appears to be high and out of sorts, and during her Grammys performance.   

The Amy Winehouse Band consisted of members such as Ade Omotayo, Dale Davis, Nathan Allen and Hawi Gondwe, who still perform together in tribute to the late singer who brought them together. 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com