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Recreating Amy Winehouse’s Small Home in a Big Life: Behind the Scenes of ‘Back to Black’

Imagine an individual entering your personal space, observing every detail, and then meticulously reconstructing it—a silent narrative unfolding without uttering a single word.

This was the precise objective of the set designers working on the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black.” In this cinematic portrayal, her various residences play a crucial role, much like Marisa Abela’s intricate portrayal of Winehouse’s vocal prowess and movements. While “Back to Black” presents a somewhat sanitized and peculiar rendition of Amy Winehouse’s life, the film unfolds within a vividly authentic backdrop. The Camden of the early 2000s teems with life and energy, yet it is Winehouse’s own living spaces, meticulously recreated by the talented set design duo of Katie Spencer (set decorator) and Sarah Greenwood (production designer), that breathe life into the narrative beyond her music and struggles.

During a video conference, Spencer and Greenwood, long-time collaborators with over two decades of shared work experience, engage in a harmonious dialogue. Their creative process involved extensive research, delving into resources like Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary “Amy,” as well as immersing themselves in photographs and descriptions of Amy’s residences. However, they did not feel bound by every minute detail. “We always start with the character,” Spencer explains. “And from there, the environment unfolds.”

Amy Winehouse exuded charm, was known for her whimsical nature, and appeared outwardly confident while harboring inner doubts. These characteristics are subtly reflected in her evolving living spaces. Her childhood bedroom is depicted as a somewhat surreal sanctuary where Abela-as-Winehouse pens lyrics and hums melodies while seated cross-legged on her bed, the backdrop adorned with whitewashed brick walls. Her initial Camden abode, a chaotic mix of shoeboxes and mugs, showcases a colossal jukebox customized with her personal records and handwritten playlists. The reeded glass of her front door distorts the view of visitors, hinting at the lurking external perils. In her final residence, a vast and airy setting half-furnished with ghostly veils covering the furniture, she appears diminutive, almost lost.

The sets often exude a charming disorder, brimming with warmth and clutter. “What fascinated me was her analog approach,” Spencer notes. “She maintained numerous journals, sketched, and doodled—never seen with a computer. I admire her old-fashioned sensibilities.” This pen-and-paper ethos permeated Greenwood and Spencer’s work, evident in the meticulous recreation of Amy’s teenage bedroom, complete with wall doodles, replicated diaries, and a deliberate absence of modern technology.

Combining elements from Amy’s early twenties flats, situated in different Camden locations, into a unified set on Jeffrey’s Place was a significant feat. The exterior, recognizable from countless paparazzi snapshots of that era, was seamlessly integrated. “We managed to capture the essence of her surroundings,” Greenwood reminisces. “It served as a poignant reminder of her essence.”

The studio reconstruction of the downstairs and bathroom from the Jeffrey’s Place flat offered a glimpse into Winehouse’s intimate space. “The actual flat was tiny, merely 12 feet wide,” Spencer remarks. “The space was compact, but her presence felt expansive—it resonated within those walls.”

Noteworthy details like the prominent Smeg fridge, a symbolic purchase representing a “first paycheck moment,” were meticulously honored. Another poignant item was the jukebox, affectionately named AMI, featuring Amy’s handwritten tracklists. The nostalgic tunes emanating from the jukebox during set dressing sessions added a timeless quality to the ambiance. “There were moments on set when her chosen tracks played, creating a surreal atmosphere,” Spencer recollects.

While these reconstructions may appear faithful, Greenwood asserts that they are interpretive representations of Amy’s spaces. “It’s akin to the Barbie Dream House concept,” she explains. “The essence is captured rather than an exact replica, much like childhood toy memories.” This essence shines through vividly in the concluding scenes set in Amy’s final residence. The rose-pink walls exude a hint of character, yet the unfinished decor lends a vast and haunting aura. “The house embodied a sense of incompleteness, a striving for maturity and sophistication from her roots. There’s an elusive quality, a certain emptiness,” Greenwood reflects. “It evokes a poignant sentiment, hinting at the inevitable.”

“It evokes a poignant sentiment, hinting at the inevitable.”