Re-creating Amy Winehouse's look on screen

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Re-creating Amy Winehouse's look on screen
Marisa Abela, who plays Amy Winehouse in the new biopic “Back to Black,” in Los Angeles, April 30, 2024. Abela wears some of the singer’s actual clothes in the film, but the hair and makeup team chose to tone the signature beehive down. (Philip Cheung/The New York Times)

by Simran Hans

LONDON.- Few looks are as distinctive as Amy Winehouse’s was. The singer’s sweeping eyeliner, tottering heels and disheveled beehive are still instantly recognizable, 13 years after her death.

In the new biopic “Back to Black,” Marisa Abela plays the star from the beginning of her music career until her final days. She wears miniskirts with girlish ruffles and small kitten heels to begin with, before adopting her distinctive pinup aesthetic as she dives deeper into the music industry and her self-destructive habits.

The film takes its title from Winehouse’s second album, and “when we get to ‘Back to Black’ Amy, it’s more sexy,” the film’s costume designer, PC Williams, said. “There was a big change in the way she presented.”

To re-create this, the production team studied many real-life images of Winehouse. But there were also some intentional changes: They were making “a piece of cinema as opposed to creating a documentary,” Williams said. Here is a closer look at the process.

Towering Hair

Although Winehouse found inspiration in girl groups like The Ronettes, her signature hairstyle was not a traditional 1960s beehive. “It was a grungy variation — homemade, edgy, a bit of cool,” said the film’s hair and makeup designer, Peta Dunstall: It tended to be “a bit ratty along the bottom.”

To re-create the look, she combined halo extensions — which circled the back of Abela’s head, underneath her natural hair — with fringe pieces and “short bits” that she stuck into the actress’s already “wild” real hair, Dunstall said. “Basically, whatever hair I could lay my hands on went onto Marisa. I could never find enough hair,” she added.

Although the team matched many of the film’s looks to real-life footage of the singer, Dunstall said that, at times, Winehouse’s hair was so big it would have been distracting for the viewer. “I toned that down, probably by 10%,” she said.

Winged Eyeliner

In the movie, Winehouse’s dramatic winged eyeliner communicates her emotional state: “It depends how broken she is: That’s when it starts to get messy,” Dunstall said.

It was hard to tell which makeup products Winehouse actually used, she said, although “everyone online thinks it’s a Rimmel eyeliner,” referring to a popular British drugstore brand. Rimmel eyeliner contains a lot of staining, which is “great for a girl going for a night out,” Dunstall said, but impractical on a film set where there would be several looks in a single day. Instead, she used a gel eyeliner by MAC, which was easier to remove.

Skin and Tattoos

Dunstall said she added texture to Abela’s skin for scenes that took place “when things weren’t so healthy for Amy.” The team used a special effects makeup product called Bondo to help Abela’s makeup sit less smoothly for scenes set during the more extreme periods of the character’s alcoholism and drug use. Dunstall explained that Abela also wore a solution on her lips so they looked “dehydrated and a bit gritty — not so glamorous, basically.”

For Winehouse’s piercing, above the left side of her lip, Abela wore a ball bearing fixed with glue. “We just hoped to God it didn’t fall off mid-scene,” Dunstall said.

Because the production did not have design rights to Winehouse’s tattoos, makeup artist Mark Coulier designed the subtly different ones worn by Abela in the film.

Raiding Amy’s Wardrobe

In preparation for the film, Mitch Winehouse, the singer’s father and the administrator of her estate, agreed to let Williams visit his home and look through what remained of Winehouse’s wardrobe. Handling the garments “felt like you were holding onto a little piece of history,” Williams said.

With Mitch’s permission, she borrowed several items to copy their wear and tear — including a pair of well-loved black skinny jeans with corset detailing on the legs. But some pieces also fit Abela, and Winehouse’s father agreed that she could wear them in the film.

The pink ballet cardigan Abela wears for a scene in which Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil break up in a pool hall belonged to the singer, Williams said. The team also used Winehouse’s own Star of David necklace as well as her pink satin varsity jacket, embroidered with the words “Amy Woo.”

Famous Outfits

Williams wanted to borrow the black ruffled Dolce & Gabbana mini dress Winehouse wore the night she won five Grammys in 2008. The Italian designers didn’t have the dress, which had been displayed in several museum exhibitions, in their archive, but they offered to remake the dress for Abela. “It’s the only item we have that is a direct replica,” Williams said.

One of Williams’ favorite outfits to re-create was the Luella Bartley dress Winehouse wore during an infamous 2008 Glastonbury, England, performance, in which she appeared to drunkenly punch a fan. Made of royal blue silk and covered in plastic appliqué flowers, Williams said the real dress was incredibly heavy. Their replica used lighter appliqués, custom made in Southeast Asia, so that Abela could wear it for an entire day of shooting and “not pass out from the weight of the garment,” Williams said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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