If you’re a fan or are merely curious about the late Grammy award-winning jazz/blues singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), and you’re able to get to San Francisco, you are in luck. After listening carefully to her music, there is no better way to understand the young woman behind the garish headlines than by visiting the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s detailed and remarkable exhibit, “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” which contains numerous personal artifacts and ephemera from Amy Winehouse’s youth and family. And by all means see the terrific documentary, “Amy,” which deftly explores Winehouse’s rise as a superstar and fall into drugs, illness and death at the age of 27.
The intimate exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (the CJM), which was donated by Amy’s brother, Alex, and the Winehouse family, was first shown at the London Jewish Museum, and then toured through several venues in Europe. To date, the CJM is the only U.S. venue showing such important developmental items as her family pictures, her list of “Songs on my Chill-Out tape” showing her musical influences, her glittery fashions, her records and her guitar.
One poignant and revealing item is her application to drama school in which she wrote, “I want people to hear my voice and just …… forget their trouble for five minutes. I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell-out concerts, and West End and Broadway shows. For being ……. just me.”
A second related, much smaller exhibit at the CJM is “You Know I’m No Good,” in which the life and music of Amy Winehouse is explored by artists Jennie Ottinger, Jason Jägel and Rachel Harrison. Unfortunately these figurative works, squeezed into a little corner of the main Winehouse show are difficult to view properly and thus appear as an afterthought.
I wasn’t aware that the Winehouse family is Jewish; there are no obvious Jewish influences in Amy’s music. But through the displays at the CJM, one can see Amy’s Jewish roots beginning with her family’s immigration to London from Belarus in the late 19th century through her brother’s Bar Mitzvah. In the documentary, “Amy,” the last scene is of her Jewish funeral.
“Amy,” by talented writer/director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) is an artfully made film, which uses archival footage and video clips from significant figures in Amy’s life who contribute their thoughts and recollections through voiceovers. This helps to create a humane and intimate chronology of Amy’s short, sad and very public life.
The film does give some weight to Amy’s earlier and happier days, but drags out the gruesome details of her drug days and death. At least twenty minutes of Amy’s downfall could have been cut without any continuity problems. But perhaps Kapadia wanted his audience to experience how her tragic downfall was augmented by the ever present paparazzi and the media that made her the butt of bad jokes.
The film exposes the deleterious influence on Amy of the two most important men in her life. Her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, is presented as a user of drugs, Amy and her money. His mother recently admitted that she spent years covering up for her son and Amy. But for some reason, Amy was deeply attached to Fielder-Civil and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take action to get away from him and their drug-infested life.
Amy’s father, Mitch, is seen as selfish and avaricious. He was an absentee father who only showed up again when the money started to roll in. In one scene, Amy has gone to St. Lucia for a badly needed rest, only to have Mitch show up with a camera crew. Just what Amy obviously didn’t need. And of course, there are the lyrics to her famous song “Rehab,” which includes the lines,
“And if my daddy thinks I’m fine Just try to make me go to rehab I won’t go, go, go”
“Rehab” is just one of the many autobiographical songs that Amy wrote herself. In the movie, while she sings her songs, we see subtitles of the lyrics on the screen, making it easy to understand the lyrics and their emotional relevance to her life.
Ultimately, what lingers after seeing the CJM’s “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and the documentary, “Amy,” is a great appreciation for Amy Winehouse’s enormous talent and the great sadness that she was taken from us so soon and died so young.