photography, writing and the spaces between
The death of singer Amy Winehouse in 2011, at the tragically young age of twenty-seven, was big news. I remember hearing about it and being shocked, and having a friend tell me about the “27 Club” to which Winehouse had the dubious honor of gaining entry. The name refers to the fact that many hugely talented musicians—including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain—also died at twenty-seven, an age at which many people are just getting their careers off the ground.
Four years later, Winehouse is having a cultural moment. A documentary about her life, simply called Amy, is on wide release and has been getting a lot of press. Meanwhile, an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait opens an intimate album on Winehouse, allowing us to view her through the lens of her family and Jewish ancestry. Interesting individually, these cultural products are fascinating when seen together, especially as they present different stories about Winehouse.
I know the terrain in which Amy Winehouse grew up. Like her, I’m a Jewish girl from the north London suburbs, and our families emigrated from Eastern Europe at around the same time—both no doubt fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms. We grew up mere miles apart and with the same kind of working class grandparents—though unlike her father, mine had upward mobility and made it into the professional class. Still, I too was rebellious and a bit of a misfit, reading beyond my age and taking refuge in the art room at high school. Unfortunately, I had none of Winehouse’s vocal talent.
The exhibition Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait explores this cultural and geographical background. We learn about the importance to Winehouse of Cynthia, her glamorous grandmother who made a great chicken matzoh-ball soup but could hold a grudge like nobody’s business. We learn that her paternal family was made up of exhibitionists—or as Winehouse put it, a “singing, dancing, all nutty musical extravaganza.” We read that she worked hard to get into a prestigious drama school, only to sabotage herself by acting out in class, at one point piercing her ear with a drawing pin.
To me, one of the most interesting insights concerns Winehouse’s reading tastes. Her brother Alex, who organized the exhibition, writes, “Amy gave off a feeling of being slightly ashamed about how intelligent she really was. She’d have tons of Jackie Collins novels lying around the flat, but would hide her Dostoyevsky collection in a cupboard.” (This dumbing-down is interesting, and perhaps allowed Winehouse to move with ease in the music world: it makes me think of novels like The Great Gatsby and Rules of Civility where male characters make themselves more articulate and sophisticated to succeed.) Nor was Dostoyevsky the only dark-themed author she read: a shelf in the exhibit includes Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear, Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man and a Time-Life volume called Serial Killers: Profiles of Today’s most Terrifying Criminals. It seems that, as Winehouse found herself being pulled under by dark forces, she was also using books to try to understand those forces better.
And then, right next to Serial Killers, we find something else: Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, a collection of letters exchanged by novelist Vladimir Nabokov and literary critic Edmund Wilson. Described by the Washington Post Book World as “Two strong-willed literati arguing about books, translation, the scansion of verse, pornography and more,” this pick shows Winehouse’s eclectic tastes and intellectual curiosity. Finally, Maria Lewycka’s novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian shows her perhaps getting in touch with her Eastern European roots, but—thankfully—enjoying a lighter-hearted yarn too.
Winehouse’s intelligence, and her humor, also come through in an essay she wrote for her application to the Sylvia Young Theater School. “All my life I have been loud, to the point of being told to shut up,” she begins—perhaps not the greatest way to win over a school admissions board, but one that is charmingly honest and funny. She ends the essay by writing, “mostly, I have this dream to be famous. To work on stage. It’s a lifelong ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just… forget their troubles for five minutes. I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell-out concerts and sell-out West End and Broadway shows.” The owner of this outsized ambition was eleven years old at the time.
This is where Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait and Amy the documentary, directed by Asif Kapadia, diverge. An oft-quoted line from the documentary is Winehouse’s answer to a reporter’s question as her career was beginning: “How big do you think you’re going to be?” “I don’t,” she answers, with more of that blazing honesty. “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad.” That quote has been used to underscore the movie’s thesis, that Winehouse was a reluctant celebrity who wanted professional opportunities but not fame, and certainly not mega-celebrity.
Obviously it’s a great pull quote, but the truth (however defined) may be a bit more nuanced. At times the documentary shows a person who seems to be inviting fame into her life: she’s happy to be filmed in almost every state, including just-awoken and with drugs in hand. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait also shows that Winehouse was obsessive about keeping memorabilia from every concert and festival she performed at. She may have thought (presciently) that she couldn’t handle fame, but there is ample evidence to suggest she wanted it.
On the other hand, countering the exhibition’s presentation of a warm, connected Jewish family we get, in the documentary, stunning examples of parental neglect. Asked about her daughter’s bulimia—the addiction that preceded her drug use—mother Janis Winehouse reveals that she knew about it but wrote it off as “a phase.” But if Janis appears emotionally tone-deaf and disconnected, father Mitch Winehouse is too involved with his daughter. He shows up during her Caribbean vacation with a reality film crew in tow, and chastises her on camera for not being nice to tourists. When she badly needs to go to rehab, he advises her to honor her professional commitments instead. (That episode, of course, was the inspiration for her 2006 mega-hit Rehab.)
Faced with these different stories, I can only conclude that there were many sides to Amy Winehouse: the strong extrovert and the fragile little girl, the reluctant celebrity and the exhibitionist, the beloved daughter and the misfit whose parents didn’t understand her. Of course, there’s no conflict in this: we know by now that people are complicated, and that opposite forces can exist in a single body. However, it may not make for a compelling through-line to a movie or exhibition to highlight these contradictions.
Soon, there may be even more versions of Winehouse’s life story. Her father Mitch has called the documentary Amy “unbalanced” and “misleading,” and says he plans to collaborate with Amy’s ex-boyfriend Reg Traviss on a film that will “tell the truth about Amy’s life.” (Mitch Winehouse has already written a book called Amy, My Daughter.) Traviss was interviewed for Amy but didn’t make the final cut, which seems like a strange omission given that he was with Winehouse during her last years. Instead, we get a bit too much of Blake Fielder-Civil, the ex-husband who introduced her to heroin and crack, and who comes across as a plausible candidate for the title of World’s Biggest Asshole.
If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that different versions of Winehouse’s life will send people back to her music—and it’s in that music that she told her own story most powerfully. Take this lyric in the early hit What Is It About Men? about how she failed to avoid her father’s legacy of adultery:
Surely I would never, ever go through it first hand
Emulate all the shit my mother hated
I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate
My alibi for taking your guy
History repeats itself, it fails to die
Did Amy Winehouse want to be famous? Late in the movie, her trusted bodyguard says she told him, “If I could give it all back and walk down the street with no hassle, I would.” Like an earlier admission that winning five Grammys was “all so boring without drugs,” this is heartbreaking. Yet for every artist who’s been driven to drugs, insanity and death by fame, there will always be thousands more who desperately want their fifteen minutes. Such is our world. Let’s hope no more of them end up in the 27 Club.