Who was Amy Winehouse, really? Four years after the Grammy-winning Jewish singer’s death at age 27, we’re still trying to understand.
“Amy,” the documentary recently released internationally, probes significant difficulties in Winehouse’s life: her discomfort with fame and the ubiquitous paparazzi, her strained relationships with her father and ex-husband, her fatal substance abuse.
Offering other perspectives on the singer’s life, the exhibition “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” opened this week at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. While family members derided the film as “misleading and contain[ing] some basic untruths,” relatives took a major role in the mounting of the exhibit, now making its U.S. debut in San Francisco. It was created at the Jewish Museum London in 2013 in collaboration with Amy’s brother and sister-in-law, Alex and Riva Winehouse.
While the film explores Winehouse’s five-generation London Jewish heritage and introduces viewers to her beloved grandmother Cynthia, the exhibit presents that history and more. It is built around hundreds of the singer’s possessions, including her eclectic street and performance wardrobes, wide-ranging record collection, insightful schoolgirl writings and a battered suitcase of personal and family photos.
“That’s exactly the point of the show: to get a glimpse of her as a human being, after all, beyond the icon, beyond what was in the tabloids,” CJM associate curator Pierre-Francois Galpin said.
“A lot of the labels in the show are in her brother’s voice, with anecdotes about Amy that most of us would never have known. I think one that moved me is about a very large, leather suitcase in which she would keep all of her photographs. She kept the suitcase in her home. An anecdote that Alex shares was that she was looking at that suitcase with her father a few days before she died.”
Explaining Winehouse’s family history, Lori Starr, CJM executive director, said, “The first thing you’re going to see when you enter the gallery is Amy’s family tree.” Amy’s great-great-grandfather, Harris Winehouse, emigrated from Minsk, Belarus in the late 19th century. “He was originally going to go to New York, but he settled in the UK.”
Galpin credited Winehouse’s nuclear family with influencing the singer’s musical tastes. “Her dad and brother and mother and Amy listened to a lot of 1960s music,” he said. The exhibition will display selections from Winehouse’s LP collection and what Galpin described as “her chill-out playlist, something she generated herself when she was 13 or 14” while attending theater school.
The list, written in Winehouse’s schoolgirl script, includes 25 songs by artists as wide-ranging as Tony Bennett, Pearl Jam, Ella Fitzgerald and “The Mickey Mouse Club” Mouseketeers. “We’re going to play these songs in the gallery,” Galpin said. “Visitors will be brought into her own universe.”
Just outside the gallery, an introductory video features Winehouse singing her song “Back to Black.” Winehouse performed once in the Bay Area: a 2007 concert at San Francisco’s Popscene nightclub to promote her Grammy-winning second and final CD, also called “Back to Black.”
Though the exhibition focuses on Winehouse’s formative years, four gallery talks will explore other aspects of her legacy and that of Britain’s Jews, with rock critic Greil Marcus on the “Interpretive Genius of Amy Winehouse,” Aug. 14; tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy on “Amy’s Tattoos,” Aug. 28; scholar Shaina Hammerman on “The Jews of Downton Abbey,” Sept. 11; and scholar Bernie Steinberg on “Judaism and Addiction through a Talmudic Lens,” Sept. 25.
Meanwhile, Bay Area performers will present two concerts of Winehouse’s songs at the CJM on Aug. 13 and 16.
Which brings us back to the documentary. “I think the fact that a lot of people will want to see the film and see the exhibition is wonderful,” Starr said. “It will give them a much more three-dimensional understanding of Amy – the person, the family story, the musical roots, the Jewish story.”
Though the release of the documentary “was coincidental with our exhibition,” Starr said it has been beneficial. “Our staff, docents and gallery teachers have as a group gone to see the film, which sparked wonderful internal conversation around the show.
“Sadly, Amy Winehouse may be best known for her catastrophic final years,” she said. “This exhibition presents a different perspective. It asks you to ruminate on her younger life and her roots and her family … that her story isn’t so different from that of many family stories.
“The exhibition asks you to consider where talent comes from, where inspiration, artistic courage and risk-taking come from. There are no hard-and-fast answers. The show provokes people to reflect on their humanity, all humanity, and to have compassion.”
“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” through Nov. 1, Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. www.cjm.org