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Why Can't We Leave Amy Winehouse Alone?

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Amy Winehouse in the documentary 'Amy.' (Photo: A24 Films)

Amy Winehouse is having a moment, and it’s an awkward one. The singer, who died in 2011, is both the subject of a documentary, Amy, in wide release now, and a museum exhibit, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, which after its initial London run is opening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum this week.

Before her death of alcohol poisoning at age 27, Winehouse was many things: a brilliant songwriter, a transformative singer, a fashion icon. But from the moment her breakthrough single “Rehab” was released, Winehouse was also incessant tabloid fodder, a paparazzi paycheck, and — as her issues with drug use became more publicized — a television late-show punchline. Her decline coincided with an unprecedented rise in social media, and until the end of her life, Amy Winehouse saw her innermost demons on display for all the world to gawk at, from every newspaper box and smartphone screen.

I remember very clearly the day Amy Winehouse died, in part because I jotted down a hodgepodge of thoughts throughout the day. You can read them here, but the first is the relevant one:

All I can think is that the media killed Amy Winehouse… That concert in Belgrade — even I clicked on the link, and after about ten seconds of the video I couldn’t watch anymore. But I clicked on the link. Another click means another vote that tells the media AMY WINEHOUSE DISASTER = SITE TRAFFIC VICTORY, and I cast it, and you cast it, and we all cast it… This, I know: When the media places your life in a certain frame, over and over, you cannot grow out of that frame. Here is the narrative since 2008: “Amy Winehouse: Hopeless Addict.” Over and over. How could she be anything but? Jesus, we all killed Amy Winehouse.

This month’s headlines echo the same sentiment: “We All Destroyed Amy Winehouse,” “How Amy Winehouse’s Pain Was Commodified,” “Powerful New Documentary Amy Holds Us All Accountable,” “Did the Internet kill Amy Winehouse?

And so now we, as fans, are put in a predicament with the documentary and this museum exhibit. Both attempt earnestly to present Amy Winehouse the human being, but the effort is achieved by mining things she surely hoped to keep private, from her personal voicemails and handwritten journal entries to her Adam Sandler CDs. How are we all not posthumously complicit in the very thing that killed her? Or can we pretend to be free of guilt now, since she’s not here to be ruined by it?

A young Amy Winehouse plays the guitar in the film 'Amy.' (Photo: A24 Films)
A young Amy Winehouse plays the guitar in the film ‘Amy.’ (Photo: A24 Films)

Of the two, the film Amy is the more revealing. Told entirely in archival footage — no present-day talking heads appear onscreen, only voices — the film pulls us along from the start, opening with camcorder footage of Winehouse at age 14: singing “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s party, eating lollipops, making cross-eyed faces.


Soon, we see yellow lined paper covered in Winehouse’s bubbly teenage-girl handwriting, little heart doodles and all. And as her rise to fame is documented, the same handwriting shows up again, this time superimposed over paparazzi photos of Winehouse in the park, her whale-tail sticking out of postage-stamp–sized shorts, with new boyfriend Blake Fielder.

Fielder comes off as opportunistic scum in the film, as does Winehouse’s father, who barges into a post-overdose retreat on St. Lucia meant to clear Winehouse’s head with his reality-show camera crew and a condemning attitude toward his daughter. But the real villains in the Amy’s second half are the photographers and their constant, violent hailstorm of camera shutters. Winehouse can go nowhere without the machine-gun firing of flashes in her face, and it’s no surprise that she chooses to stay inside — where, ironically, she takes pictures of herself, her face increasingly sunken-in and marred by the effects of heavy crack cocaine and alcohol use.

What Amy does best is remind us that Winehouse’s music was her own. While revisionists will try to pin the success of her breakthrough album Back to Black on producer Mark Ronson, there are many scenes in Amy of Winehouse playing guitar, and constructing inventive melodies over complex jazz chords. Because of the beehive-hairdo lead singer she turned into, few ever knew that Winehouse wrote the entirety of the songs on Back to Black, and the film is a welcome reminder.

It’s a reminder that can be had with each listen to her singing — her otherworldly phrasing, her sly lyrics, and, in Amy, her heartbreak as she repeats the last word of the album’s title track, alone in a studio’s isolation booth: “black… black… black…”

Entrance image to 'Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,' on view July 23–Nov. 1, 2015, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. (Photo: Mark Okoh/Camera Press London)
Entrance image to ‘Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,’ on view July 23–Nov. 1, 2015, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. (Photo: Mark Okoh/Camera Press London)

Winehouse’s own music doesn’t play over the speakers at Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. Instead, visitors hear songs inspired by a playlist titled “Songs on My Chill-Out Tape,” photocopied and framed in bubbly-Winehouse-cursive. It’s a strange feeling to walk into an exhibit dedicated to Amy Winehouse and hear the Offspring’s angsty 1994 hit “Self Esteem,” just as it’s strange that the exhibit’s first stateside appearance is in San Francisco, a city where Winehouse only performed once.

There’s a separate conversation to be had about museums opening their doors to musical celebrity, be it Björk’s widely lambasted exhibition at New York’s MoMA, or PJ Harvey’s intriguing Recording in Progress at Somerset House in London. But there’s an extra delicacy to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibition in the fact that Amy Winehouse died just four short years ago. (As if to underscore this discomfort, the exhibit’s opening date, July 23, is the exact anniversary of her death.)

In Amy, the only hint of Winehouse’s Jewish heritage comes during her funeral, where scattered attendees wear yarmulkes. Winehouse was descended from Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, but didn’t attend synagogue, which makes this exhibit of personal effects assembled by her siblings Alex and Riva more a use of Jewish ancestry than Jewish faith; thus, we get framed chicken soup recipes, photos from her great-grandparents’ barbershop, and a family tree that traces back to Belarus, Russia and Poland.

A young Amy outside her Grandma’s flat in Southgate. (Photo: The Winehouse family/ Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco)
A young Amy outside her Grandma’s flat in Southgate. (Photo: The Winehouse family/ Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco)

This same wall contains Amy’s handwritten application to Sylvia Young Theatre School, in which she declares, “I have this dream to be very famous. To work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition.” Notably, this is in contrast to statements she would make about fame that were included in Amy (“I don’t think I could handle it,” Winehouse says, pre-Back to Black. “I’m sure I’d go mad”), but a 1994 class photo hints that Winehouse was ready for anything the world might throw her way. She’s easy to spot, dead center, hunched forward before her schoolmates with a determined look in her young eyes.

One wall is dedicated to Winehouse’s music, and obsessives will find themselves craning their necks to read the spines of select LPs and CDs from her collection. (Along with expected titles from Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington and Mary J. Blige — artists who had a clear influence on her phrasing — there’s a sizable amount of hip-hop: Dead Prez, Ghostface Killah, Talib Kweli, Kid Koala, Common, Jungle Brothers and others.) The music wall also contains Winehouse’s black Regal resonator guitar, which, according to brother Alex, “is probably the worst musical instrument ever made,” yet its presence here is another reminder of Winehouse’s songwriting ability.

Two more walls showcase Winehouse’s wardrobe, a mix of thrift-store Swingers chic and high fashion. Shoes are the thing here, with Fendi, Yves Saint-Laurent, Ferragamo and Louboutin pairs on display, but the most striking item is a Luella Bartley dress worn at Glastonbury in 2008 with an impossibly tiny waist. It instantly recalls Winehouse’s ongoing struggles with bulimia — a disease her mother essentially pooh-poohs in Amy — and the viewer is compelled to get a sideways view to see just how thin Winehouse forced her own body to become.

And there it is, creeping back up again, the icky feeling that we’re mining Winehouse’s personal demons and private life but pretending to ourselves that it’s homage. Two examples from the exhibit come to mind, and one is a vintage white-and-gold 1950s cocktail bar that Winehouse owned. Winehouse drank heavily, ultimately destroying herself with alcohol, but the family’s description painstakingly asserts that “She never actually used the bar for its actual purpose; it was more of a good place to put letters and bills, rather than drinks.”

Installation view from 'Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,' Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. (Photo: Ian Lillicrapp)
Installation view from ‘Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,’ Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. (Photo: Ian Lillicrapp)

The other is bound to be the running joke of the show: an assortment of refrigerator magnets, “collected by Amy,” the majority of which are the type displayed at a novelty store next to the X-ray goggles and rubber dog poop. You’ve seen these before: the 1950s housewife captioned with “I don’t suffer from insanity — I enjoy every minute of it” or “Ran into my ex… put it in reverse and hit him again.” The only magnets remotely personal to Winehouse are a few from Miami, where she and Fielder were married, or Austin, where she performed at South by Southwest. The others are so laughably banal, as if someone ransacked her apartment after she died and grabbed whatever was left, that one wonders why we’re not also ogling drawers of her twist-ties and bins of her discarded Q-tips.

A companion exhibit, You Know I’m No Good, with work by Jennie Ottinger, Rachel Harrison, and Jason Jagel, adds an artistic reaction to Winehouse’s legacy, and raises valid questions about black appropriation and the predatory act of capturing one’s image. Parents brought here by their teenage children may find more of interest in it than in staring at a rack of Winehouse’s suspenders and belts.


Does any of this voyeurism deepen our appreciation of Winehouse’s artistry? Not especially. You Know I’m No Good takes its title from one of Winehouse’s most self-examining songs, but as we already know, Any Winehouse was good. So good, in fact, that even four years after her death, we evidently still can’t leave her alone.

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