In the two years since her premature death, interest in Amy Winehouse’s music and colourful life has hardly waned. A film is in the works. Her songs still receive plentiful airplay. And she continues to be cited as a cautionary tale on the perils of excess. But as we were reminded when a rabbi conducted her funeral and her family sat shivah, Amy was also a north London Jewish girl made good — not a celebrity with Jewish lineage, but a bona fide Jewish celebrity, whose connection with her faith extended beyond a few choice Yiddish words.
In staging the first exhibition celebrating her life and career — down the road from where she died in July 2011, when a few months short of her 28th birthday — the Jewish Museum has emphasised that side of Amy, as opposed to the messy, tragic figure she was depicted as in her latter years. It is certainly a coup for the museum and likely to bring in the crowds. But it also seems an appropriate venue.
“We wanted to try to tell the story that isn’t told,” explains museum chief executive Abigail Morris. And the display — co-curated with Amy’s brother Alex and his wife — goes some way to doing that. Among the more obvious items, like the blue sequined dress she wore on stage at Glastonbury in 2008, are glimpses into a woman who, as Morris says, was not a world apart from us.
A prominently displayed family tree shows her as the descendant of Seatons, Steinbergs, Singers and Puppavovitches, men and women who, like so many, made the journey from the shtetl to the suburbs via the East End. There are photographs of her in JLGB uniform and scowling in a flowery dress at her brother’s barmitzvah. And a school photo from 1994 with Amy in the centre, all wild hair and defiance, standing out even then.
Browsing through her CD collection, you can smile wryly at Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince mingling with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Carole King — and wonder what on earth inspired the purchase of a comedy album by Adam Sandler.
With each item annotated by Alex, the anecdotes are personal, often touching. Certainly, there’s a conscious effort to rehabilitate her image. No mention is made of her battle with drink and drugs, nor is there any reference to Blake Fielder-Civil. But that’s reasonable for an exhibition billed as a family portrait. It’s more about her personal life and heritage than what happened after she hit the big time.
We learn that “Amy gave off a feeling of being slightly ashamed about how intelligent she really was” and had a secret obsession with word puzzles. But as her collection of crossword and Sudoku books are all displayed closed, we don’t know how enthusiastically she indulged this passion.
There are examples of her reading material, including the bestselling novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and we are told that despite her glamorous demeanour, she preferred wearing “jogging bottoms, T-shirts and manky bras”.
Often cited as a key influence, her grandmother Cynthia is remembered with a wedding photograph from 1949, the red lips and big hair giving a foretaste of Amy’s style.
In the words of Alex, his sister “to her deepest core [was] simply a little Jewish kid from north London with a big talent who, more than anything, just wanted to be true to her heritage”.
Given what we know about her final years, it is not a totally convincing statement, but the exhibition is an inspiration for those harbouring big dreams.