Portrait of Amy Winehouse as a Fragile Jewish Girl

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
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Amy Winehouse.Credit: Alex Lake
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – Most of us became aware of Amy Winehouse only after she became famous and watched, from a tabloid-bridged distance, while her beehive hairdo grew higher and messier as her addictions to drugs and alcohol escalated.

A new documentary about Winehouse now gives us the chance to posthumously get to know the spunky but fragile young Jewish girl from north London, who only wanted to sing jazz but was pulled into the undertow of a life unmoored by fame, poor parenting and the swirl of a tumultuous love affair with the man who introduced her to crack cocaine and heroin, Blake Fielder-Civil.

The new film “Amy,” from director Asif Kapadia, was released on July 3rd and will begin screening on 435 screens in the U.S. this Friday. It won critical praise at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was recently shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“Amy” opens with the singer and her best pals hamming it up for the camera at a 14th birthday party in 1998. A couple of the girls begin singing a breathy “Happy birthday to you,” a la Marilyn Monroe for Jack Kennedy. But Amy keeps going, swooping the notes of the familiar ditty up and down the scale in a way that makes clear the magnitude of her natural vocal gifts.

In her own words, shown onscreen, Winehouse’s goal was to become a jazz singer, to perform and compose great music. Her brief career started off when, just 16, she met Nick Shymansky, 19, who became her first manager and close friend.

Both Jews from North London, the footage shows her as a clear-eyed, funny, sardonic teenager who invariably had a cigarette in her mouth and a love for weed.

“Amy had a really strong Jewishness about her It was her humor and her whole get-up," Shymansky told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. "She and her friends were these loud, mouthy, confident Jewish girls. I used to go to Friday night dinners at her grandmother’s place, and when she and [a friend] got their first flat, you’d go in and they’d offer you chicken soup and knaidlach. Neither of us was particularly religious, but we were very culturally Jewish.” In a home video in the film, Winehouse ebulliently tells Shymansky that she is “your favorite Jewish girl apart from your mum.”

Amy Winehouse at the beginning of her career. (Photo by Nick Shymansky)

The music Winehouse wrote was almost entirely autobiographical. “Back to Black,” from the 2006 album of the same name, sharply recounts her feelings about Fielder-Civil’s leaving her to go back to an old girlfriend. Winehouse and Fielder-Civil had a tumultuous, drug-ridden relationship. They eventually married, then separated.

Kapadia’s film portrays Winehouse’s parents as deeply irresponsible and her father, in particular, as grossly exploitative. Mitchell Winehouse, who worked then as a taxi driver, carried on an affair with another woman for years and was rarely home before abandoning his family when Amy was nine. She later got a tattoo that said “Daddy’s Girl.”

He is essentially absent from Amy’s life, at least until her star begins to rise. Then, suddenly, Mitchell Winehouse appears again, positioning himself as the advisor who would shepherd her career.

The film shows Amy's friends begging her father to stop her from flying to perform in Belgrade, Serbia, in June 2011. They ask him to take away her passport — to do whatever it would take — to make sure she took care of herself and got treatment.

But he refused, saying that it was business and that people were counting on her. That concert, at which she stumbled out on stage too strung-out on heroin to sing, proved to be her last.

The film makes clear that most of her songs were deeply autobiographical. In one of her most famous, “Rehab,” the lyrics recount her real life. Her friends tried to make her go to rehab and she said she would, but only if her father thought she ought to. But he said no, she needed to keep her professional commitments.

(Photo by Rex Features)

Her mother, Janis Winehouse, comes off as a credible candidate for the title of the worst Jewish mother ever. Though she is hardly visible in the film, one line stands out: when she talks about first learning that Amy had bulimia. Janis Winehouse says she didn’t think much of it, really, and that she thought it would just go away.

And then there is the scene the film that shows Amy in St. Lucia on extended holiday. She is immensely famous at that point, working hard to stay sober, and is with only her closest friends and a bodyguard.

Her father shows up unannounced with a camera crew in tow, to film a reality show. At one point other resort guests approach Amy, asking for a photo with her. They apologize for imposing and she grumbles, “well, if you were really sorry you wouldn’t do it, would you?”

Mitchell Winehouse pulls her aside and, instead of empathizing with his exhausted, fragile daughter, castigates her for being rude to fans.

The Winehouse family initially cooperated with the moviemakers, but later distanced themselves. In April they issued a statement saying the film was “misleading” and that “there are specific allegations made against family and management that are unfounded and unbalanced.”

The filmmakers defended the film, saying that they conducted about 100 interviews with those who knew Amy personally and professionally. “The story that the film tells is a reflection of our findings from these interviews,” they said in their own statement.

The movie documents the dissolution of Amy Winehouse. It shows her winning the acclaim of the music industry at The Mercury Awards and the Grammys. It shows her owning the spotlight when she was well, inhabiting the full power of her voice and her onstage persona. “Amy” shows her gobsmacked to meet one of her musical idols, Tony Bennett, as they record a duet — released after she died. She nervously falters during what turned out to be her last recording. It shows her wasting away from bulimia and drugs. And it highlights how haunted Amy was in her final years. Stalked by paparazzi, taken advantage of by her father, deserted by the love of her life, she was wrecked by her own vulnerability and addictions.

We all know how the movie ends: with Amy’s death at the heartrendingly young age of 27. By the time the film shows her body being carried out of her London home on that July day in 2011, and images taken outside her funeral, the viewer feels a keen sense of loss.

Not just the loss of a magnificently talented singer with a singular voice, but the loss of a fragile young woman — in many ways as vulnerable as a girl — who was the victim not just of drugs, alcohol and an eating disorder, but of the people in her life who appear to have utterly failed at their primary responsibility: caring for Amy.

Amy Winehouse during a concert in Spain in 2008. (Photo by AP)

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