Exactly four years after Amy Winehouse completed her heartbreaking slow-motion swan dive into the void, I surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of her life on the opening day of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Organized by the Jewish Museum of London with extensive input from her family, “A Family Portrait” is a quiet, almost shrine-like, remembrance of the ferociously talented pop-jazz singer who succumbed to the ravages of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction in 2011 at age 27.
There are only the vaguest references to Winehouse’s struggles in “A Family Portrait”: a 2007 Rolling Stone cover with the headline “The Diva and Her Demons” and a wall label featuring a quote from her older brother Alex mentioning the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a UK charity set up by her family to educate young people about the dangers of addiction. But then, starker references aren’t necessary. Amy’s absence and her family’s grief are nearly palpable in the intimate exhibition space. The loss of her resonates everywhere you turn: in the video of teenaged Amy tearing it up, already possessed of that magnificent voice and eccentric phrasing, in a school revue; in the suitcase full of loose family snapshots that she hoarded; in her brother’s notes on her little collection of Snoopy paraphernalia. “This book was a Christmas present from my mum to me many years ago,” writes Alex Winehouse of a well-worn Snoopy paperback book. “Stolen by Amy, I took it back after she died and always carry it with me.”
The Snoopy anecdote got to me. This is what loss feels like; flesh and blood are gone, but the sadly mundane possessions — the tattered Snoopy paperback, the cheesy cache of refrigerator magnets — remain. They’re woefully inadequate reminders that you can’t put your arms around a memory.
It seems a stretch to call “A Family Portrait” an exhibit; it’s too narrowly focussed and reverential for that. There is little to contextualize Amy Winehouse, the Star. A few of her tiny stage dresses hang dispiritedly above a row of her stiletto heels and her old Regal acoustic guitar stands next to a portion of her record collection, but her singing voice is absent except for that school video. There is one video of Winehouse after she achieved success, a European TV performance of “Back to Black,” but it plays in a loop on a screen outside the exhibit.
And though the show was organized and is currently housed by a Jewish museum, there are only a few overt connections to Judaism (the Winehouses were not strictly observant): a family tree tracing Amy’s ancestors’ emigration from Belarus, Poland and Russia to London; a Jewish cookbook given to Amy by Alex; a few photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah.
But in one respect, the exhibit powerfully justifies its existence and its venue. Visiting “A Family Portrait” is like attending shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at the home of the departed. It leaves you feeling enormously tender towards Amy; your heart aches with the loss of her.
The CJM is also showing “You Know I’m No Good” as a companion exhibit to “A Family Portrait.” Consisting of works by San Francisco artists Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger and New York artist Rachel Harrison, the smaller exhibit attempts to broach the subjects “A Family Portrait” doesn’t encompass: Amy Winehouse’s legacy as a performer, and artistic interpretations of her as an icon.
Jagel’s “What Remains When You’re Not Here” makes a sensitive landing point as you enter the small side room still in a fugue of sadness from “A Family Portrait.” Jagel places an Amy-shaped blue and turquoise empty space in the center of the frame; it’s a perfect complement to the feelings of grief and absence stirred by the main exhibit.
But the centerpiece of the side exhibit is Jennie Ottinger’s “Mouth to Mouth,” a wall-length (and then some) collage consisting of cut-out and painted figures of Winehouse and the black female singers who came before her. According to the wall labels, the artwork is from a stop-motion animation addressing cultural appropriation. The figures on the wall include Nina Simone without a mouth, Billie Holiday, the Ronettes and the Supremes, all surrounded by disembodied lipsticked mouths, some with black skin, some with white. Pieces of Amy — the eyeliner-winged eyes, the ratted bouffant, torso, arms, legs — float around a final image of her with a three-dimensional black-skinned mouth placed over her own.
In the notes, Ottinger writes, “As talented as Ms. Winehouse was, she did not invent her distinctive sound but brilliantly extended what had been happening in black music from Mamie Smith in the 1920s through Lauryn Hill in the 1990s … As amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation that she did.”
While I doubt that anyone listening to her ever believed that Amy Winehouse “invented” jazz or R&B (or eyeliner and bouffants, for that matter), “she didn’t invent her distinctive sound” is a strange, contradictory phrase. Amy’s sound was, unequivocally, distinctive, because her voice — and what she did with it — was distinctive. It was her own. Of course she invented it — she was born with it. And while it’s clear that Winehouse was influenced by black artists, it seems disingenuous to state that such revered, towering musical and cultural figures as Holiday, Simone, the Supremes and the Ronettes, for example, “did not achieve the level of appreciation” Winehouse did. You could argue that those artists, particularly Holiday and Simone, didn’t achieve the level of monetary compensation that Winehouse did. But “appreciation”?
Ottinger’s is a provocative piece, but Amy Winehouse feels like the wrong target at whom to launch a loaded projectile like “cultural appropriation.” Winehouse was no dabbler in black music; there was nothing manufactured, opportunistic or artificial about her feel for jazz, the blues or R&B. In the main exhibit, her record collection and her playlist of favorite songs (compiled while still a schoolgirl) is heavy on Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, along with her other avowed influences Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Carole King. Winehouse grew up in a jazz-loving household. She felt the pain and joy of the music; that much was obvious even in the main exhibit’s video of Amy at 14 singing in the rich, near-fully-formed jazz-soul style of the adult Amy.
Was this white Jewish girl influenced by artists of color? Without a doubt. Can’t we leave it at that, and rejoice in black music’s power to bridge racial and cultural divides and speak deeply to universal feelings across color lines?
I appreciate the attempt by the CJM to offer a weightier component to “A Family Portrait.” But the balance feels off, like speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. Maybe the problem is that the main exhibit is so overwhelmingly adoring that, in this context, Ottinger’s piece feels unduly harsh. Still, “A Family Portrait” does seem incomplete. The unanswered questions are glaring. What was it about Amy Winehouse that made her such a singular talent? Why was she so vulnerable to the demons that finally took her life? And where was her family when all of the bad shit was going down?
The best companion piece to “A Family Portrait” isn’t a companion piece at all; it’s Asif Kapadia’s devastating, beautiful documentary Amy, which I went to see right after leaving the museum. In “A Family Portrait,” one of the first objects we see is Amy’s admission essay to Sylvia Young, a London performing arts school, written at age 13. “I have this dream to be famous, to work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes,” she wrote. Those words weighed on my mind as I watched her dreams of fame come true in Amy.
Kapadia tells the story through home videos, news footage, interviews, and Amy’s music. There is no traditional narration, no talking heads on camera, but the tragic arc of her life — from the opening video of the teenage Amy singing “Happy Birthday” in that precocious voice, to the skeletal, wasted figure circled by the strobe-flashes of British tabloid vultures near the end — is shatteringly clear. It’s not a new story: emotionally vulnerable young woman possessed of an outsized gift is preyed on by parasites until it kills her. But the fact that Amy’s struggles were no secret, and the people closest to her were unable or unwilling to help her, make them all the more devastating.
There are gorgeous moments in the movie; in particular, the early career footage of Amy makes a strong case for her genius as a songwriter and for her intuitive jazz-soul phrasing. She recalls Laura Nyro a bit as she soulfully sings “I Heard Love Is Blind” (accompanying herself playing jazz chords on guitar) in an audition tape for record company execs. And the image of a young, radiant, saucy Amy clad in an elegant wrap dress, singing “Stronger Than Me” in a small jazz club, is the one I keep flashing back to, days later, as a counter to the awfulness of her unraveling in the film’s latter frames.
The filmmakers are unstinting in their portrayals of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (who initially cooperated with Kapadia, but has since labeled the documentary “misleading”), and Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of her life, as twin negative influences (if not outright villains).
Mitch, a jazz-singing cab driver, was carrying on an affair with another woman and absent for much of Amy’s adolescence. In the film, her parents explain that they thought that Amy was “OK” with the separation and divorce, but Amy tells a different story of being a teen acting out her resentment and her longing for the stability her parents couldn’t give her.
Still, Amy adored her father, even as she laid the roots of her self-destructive impulses and attraction to bad men at his feet in the song “What Is it About Men” from her 2003 debut album Frank. She had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her left arm, and in Amy, you see how Mitch repays her affection: after her first brush with a near-overdose, he quashes her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab, not wanting to forfeit her concert bookings. She defers to him, and backs out of the rehab plan. The lyrics to Amy’s breakthrough hit “Rehab” scroll onto the movie screen: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/ Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go go.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the song countless times and thought that the “daddy” of the lyric simply referred to a lover. And now it’s impossible to hear that song the same way again.
Later in the film, while Amy is on a tropical retreat trying to get sober, Mitch — still capitalizing on his daughter’s success — invades her privacy with a camera crew from his own reality TV show and manufactures drama by dragging a fragile, unwilling (but ultimately obedient) Amy over to take a picture with two fans he met on the beach. (For a deeper analysis of Amy’s father issues, see this fascinating piece by psychotherapist Binnie Klein.)
As for Fielder-Civil, this guy practically had “bad news” tattooed on his forehead. We see Amy fall hard for him, become his companion in booze and ever-harder drugs. It’s painful to watch Amy’s body language change when she’s around Fielder-Civil; without him, she’s lively, funny, brash, but in his presence, she girlishly flicks her eyes up at him, clutches his arm, leans into him. He dumps her, she spirals, but then when she gets hot with Back to Black, he comes sniffing around again and all is lost. Again, Amy’s lyrics — “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game” — tell the story. Seeing them placed in context in Amy, makes you hear the Back to Black album anew as a brilliant, immediate and heart-piercing piece of confessional songwriting.
While Amy takes clear aim at Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, her mother Janis is portrayed (in her own words) as an ineffectual mother incapable of “standing up to” her strong-willed daughter. She recounts how, when the teenaged Amy told her that she had discovered a new diet that consisted of throwing up after every meal, she put Amy’s bulimia down to “a phase.” Amy’s lifelong bulimia contributed to her death of heart failure. There are heroes in Amy — Lauren and Juliet, two loyal friends from girlhood, her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, her final bodyguard Andrew Morris (Alex Winehouse does not appear in the movie) — but their efforts to save Amy from implosion are no match for the perfect storm of addiction, fame, inadequately addressed mental health issues and the scars of family dysfunction.
After seeing Amy, it’s fair to ponder the other emotions that might lie under the grief that infuses “A Family Portrait.”
(“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and “You Know I’m No Good” run through Nov. 1 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Amy is playing in theaters now.)
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015