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Amy Winehouse Was a Nice Jewish Girl With a Big Problem

The singer, subject of a moving new biographical documentary, never lived long enough to learn how to live

Malina Saval
July 10, 2015
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Back when Andy Gibb died I was too young to fully comprehend the repercussions of drug addiction and what it meant that someone had overdosed. I assumed addiction was a choice, the word “disease” an abstract tag to prettify obituaries and punch up headlines. Gibb, whose Flowing Rivers album was a staple of my 14-year-old existence 10 years after its release, had made a terrible choice, one that left him dead. I was only 4 when Elvis Presley died, 7 when John Lennon was killed, and so Gibb was the first pop star—my inchoate adolescent taste in Top 40 tunes aside—whose death rattled me in real time. I remember thinking, there must be something “bad” about Andy Gibb, something the winged golden hair and shirtless photo spreads in Tiger Beat didn’t quite communicate.

Turns out, “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” was a disco-fied lie; all he wanted was the drugs. I was a nice Jewish girl who had never so much as gotten drunk, because Jewish girls never became addicts, and we certainly didn’t snort cocaine until our hearts stopped beating forever.

When Amy Winehouse died it was different. It was 2011, and more than a decade had passed since I’d been hospitalized for depression and a dependency on benzodiazepines. I was now married to a recovering alcoholic, and the fact that I ever thought addiction was a choice felt just plain absurd. More ridiculous was the outlandish notion that Jews weren’t addicts, a belief now realized for what it actually was—a myth. In fact, I knew nothing but Jewish addicts (and, of course, plenty of non-Jewish ones, too). I knew so many people that either were an addict or were related to an addict that if I ran into a person who’d never been to an Al-Anon or Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—or, worse, didn’t know what the difference was—I had to assume there was something seriously wrong with them. Addiction had gone from meaning you were “bad” to meaning you possessed a sophisticated understanding of suffering.

But newspapers love a titillating headline, especially when it involves a celebrity in crisis, and by the time Amy Winehouse began her descent into drugs and alcohol, the press latched onto her like a barnacle to the bottom of a ship. She was a tabloid spectacle, a caricature with a giant beehive and twiggy legs and that prodigiously tragic voice, a raspy and raw throwback to the great rhythm and blues acts and jazz crooners. While she was literally dying in front of us, comedians like Jay Leno and George Lopez told nimble jokes. There are scores of pop singers poked fun at for their lack of talent, but Winehouse was the opposite: “Back to Black” was a critical and commercial success, its lyrics, a collective cry for help if ever there was one, swept aside in favor of an incisive focus on her mounting recklessness and insanity.


With her shiny Star of David necklace and bruised and bloodied face, Winehouse was a “Jewish mom’s worst nightmare” and a “Jewish girl gone bad,” a darkly romanticized antidote to “nice Jewish girls” like Natalie Portman. She was covered in cat-eye makeup and tattoos (the name of her paternal Jewish grandmother, “Cynthia,” inked on one arm; “Daddy’s Girl” on the other) and married to (and later divorced from) a ne’er-do-well heroin junkie who clocked time in prison. “I fell in love with someone who I would have died for,” Winehouse said of Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to crack cocaine.

Which is why Amy, Asif Kapadia’s masterful documentary that opens nationwide on July 10, is more than just a remarkable cinematic achievement—it’s the narrative about Amy Winehouse that’s been lacking all along, a haunting account of fame’s devastating effects on a vulnerable girl-woman to whom no one would listen when she desperately prophesized her own doom: “I’m not a girl trying to be a star or trying to be anything other than a musician. … I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad.”

Stripped of sensationalism, Kapadia’s film relies on a bounty of archival footage, much of it shot on cellphones, and interviews with friends and family members, as well as the unsparing confessional lyrics of such tracks as “Tears Dry on Their Own” and “Love Is a Losing Game” to create an introspective and nuanced glimpse into the world of Winehouse, one that hews closer to the truth of who she was as a person, a songwriter, an artist—and even, culturally at least, a Jew. Obviously, Winehouse wasn’t the most observant Jew, but that’s hardly the point. If you’re a Jewish girl—or some quasi grown-up version thereof—watching never-before-seen footage of Winehouse as a shy but sparkly teen, with her dry sense of humor and wall of wavy black hair like that of a biblical heroine, is a revelation, because she reminds you of yourself, or at the very least, someone you knew growing up.

Addiction had gone from meaning you were “bad” to meaning you possessed a sophisticated understanding of suffering.

Rebellious and moody, Winehouse also had a softer side—a haimish one, really—that made chicken soup for her bodyguards and idolized her father (notorious stage dad Mitchell Winehouse) and prompted one executive at Island Records to describe her as a “classic North London Jewish girl.” The film opens with a heartbreaking clip of Winehouse at age 14 in a North London flat, before bulimia and drugs ate away at her zaftig frame, belting out a precocious rendition of “Happy Birthday” to her close friend Lauren Gilbert, pinching a lollipop stick like a cigarette, looking every bit like that sad, soulful girl who sat next to you in Hebrew school scribbling shocking poems about ex-boyfriends in a notebook. “I felt like I had nothing new that was coming out at the time that really represented me or the way I felt so, you know, I just started writing,” Winehouse later explains. “I wouldn’t write anything unless it was directly personal to me just ‘cuz I wouldn’t be able to tell the story right.”

By her own admission, Winehouse’s compulsion to write songs was rooted in the fact that she was tortured and depressed. “I write songs because I’m fucked up in the head,” she reveals at a midpoint in the documentary, citing her parents’ divorce—Mitchell Winehouse was having an affair for years—as the catalyst for all subsequent self-destructive behavior: the drugs, the booze, the relentless cycle of binge eating and vomiting. But Winehouse wasn’t the type to play the victim, and in Amy we see a commanding coquette so flush with charisma, it boils. “When Amy made up her mind, she made up her mind,” says her mother, Janis Winehouse. “I wasn’t strong enough to say to her, stop.”

It was this streak of perfectionism that drove Winehouse to succeed but also contributed to her demise. A scene between Winehouse and Tony Bennett, in which they record a duet, proves just how hard on herself she was. “I’ve got to get it right,” she tells Bennett, her musical idol. “I’ve got to get it right.” It’s easy to condemn an addict for sabotaging her own life, but an alternative reading of Amy Winehouse suggests something else altogether: She wasn’t a Jewish girl gone bad—she was a Jewish girl who held herself to impossible standards.

Winehouse couldn’t stop—and most of the people around her weren’t motivated by the prospect of her sobriety. Her father treated her like a horse he was betting on at the racetrack. Her handlers were steeped in denial, pushing her onstage despite the fact she was wasted. She wasn’t a human being—she was a commodity.

What makes Winehouse’s story all the more tragic is that in the face of those that profited most from her success, all she wanted was to please them. All she wanted was to be loved. All she wanted was to be heard. Even Winehouse had to wonder what the point was of sobriety if at the end of the day you were still feeling empty and alone.

There were a few people in Winehouse’s world that tried to do the right thing, but pitted again the merciless grip of addiction, they hardly stood a chance. Some of the most poignant scenes are the ones in which Winehouse hangs with her girlfriends, her smile contagiously bright, or flirts with her first manager, the pudgy and playful Nick Shymansky, who’s clearly in love with her even though he doesn’t say it. If there is a so-called “nice, Jewish boy” in the picture, it’s him. “It’s your favorite Jewish girl apart from your mum,” Winehouse teases him in a phone message. Despite the cruel knowledge of how it all ends, you wistfully keep hoping they’ll get together.

In the end, perhaps the most affecting and wisest commentary on all that lost potential comes from Bennett himself.

“Slow down,” he would have told Winehouse. “Life really teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough.”

Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.