July 29, 2015

Before she became the chart-topping, Grammy-winning, pill-popping artist, Amy Winehouse was just a nice Jewish girl from a suburb in London. She even looked the part. The long angular nose, creamy skin, high cheekbones, the dark shtetl hair … 

According to the new documentary “Amy,” she was barely out of high school when she began crooning in nondescript jazz clubs, acne still dotting her face, while her signature sultry voice was already crisp with the wisdom of many years. As it slides up and down syllables with the smoothness of a glass elevator, it’s clear she was born to do this.

But her destiny was short-lived. The wrenching documentary by Asif Kapadia follows the meteoric rise and fast fall of Winehouse, the stunningly gifted British-Jewish jazz singer who died in 2011 from alcohol poisoning at age 27. The film is at times so painful to watch, between her raw performances, spiraling addiction and the parasitic chorus of enablers who freeloaded on the star’s “gravy train,” I half-wondered why it was the other Amy’s movie that was titled “Trainwreck.” 

Compared to “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” another documentary about a white, Jewish jazz chanteuse, Winehouse makes the outrageous seem tame. Tucker scandalized with songs like “The Angle Worm Wiggle,” which she paired with suggestive gestures in hopes a public arrest would drive up ticket prices. Winehouse didn’t need stunts. Paparazzi stalked her all over London for play-by-play images of her public addiction and cringe-worthy unraveling.

But if ever there were examples of Jewish women breaking boundaries and beating the odds, they are Tucker and Winehouse: Both hit the big time in a genre widely considered black music; they also shared a heritage, a talent for vocal technique, a proclivity for provocation and mega-fame. At a time when talk of race and race relations crowd the headlines, it is refreshing to be reminded of how two women integrated themselves so seamlessly into black culture, as if it were not “other” but their own. 

Their life stories couldn’t be more different; nor could their respective temperaments. Tucker was a publicity-loving dramatist with a talent for self-parody (“Nobody loves a fat girl,” she often sang, “but oh, how a fat girl can love …”); Winehouse was a vulnerable poet-artist who cared little for fame and lyricized her self-pity (“I cheated myself / Like I knew I would / I told you I was trouble / You know that I’m no good”). Beyond their syncopated sentences and varicolored voices, they traversed almost opposite trajectories: Tucker lived long enough to see herself placed among legends, while Winehouse tumbled to an early grave.

Family life was no picnic for either one. 

The Ukranian-born Tucker grew up in Hartford, Conn., where her immigrant parents owned and operated a kosher restaurant. Tucker quickly grew bored with washing dishes, so at 16, she eloped and later fled to New York City. She didn’t seem to mind leaving behind her young son, who grew up to have a host of problems, or parading through a string of shallow marriages that all ended in divorce. But onstage, Tucker could make you believe anything, and the family-averse star made a worldwide hit of the song “My Yiddishe Momme” — an ode so adoring of Jewish mothers that it was banned in Nazi Germany.

Winehouse was born in North London to a middle-class family that broke apart when she was 9. Her mother was a pharmacist who admits in the film she wasn’t “strong enough” to parent her child; her father, Mitch, was a window-panel installer and taxi driver before becoming one of the chief exploiters of his daughter’s fame and fortune. 

One of the saddest and most exasperating moments in “Amy” is when images of a self-destructing Winehouse, bloodied by heroin and blasted by booze, are paired with her father’s declaration that she doesn’t need help. Soon we see why: During a period of self-imposed seclusion on a tropical island in which Amy tries to abstain from drugs, Daddy Winehouse shows up with reality-show cameras and a production deal. Mitch’s willful blindness to his daughter’s deep-seated addiction was made famous in the lyrics of her hit song, “Rehab”: “I ain’t got the time / And if my Daddy thinks I’m fine …” — and in the end, we know, she needed to go, go, go.

It is ironic that Winehouse came of age in an era of obsessive media attention and self-documentation but was humiliated and hurt by it, while Tucker obsessively documented herself in 400 scrapbooks compiled over 60 years and relished every last clipping. If only Tucker had been around to teach Winehouse how to work her spotlight, maybe it wouldn’t have burned so much. 

Instead, drugs and alcohol became the border between Winehouse and the world, crowding out her music and replacing it with mayhem (“Life is like a pipe / And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside”). There was also the bulimia, the pitiless public and the monumentally bad choice of spouse. All became her undoing. Where Tucker was born for the warm, fun glow of the limelight, Winehouse was a tortured soul who seemed to want to disappear. 

The great tragedy of “Amy” is also its sharpest insight: that Winehouse was seriously, spiritually, soul-shiftingly gifted and had only begun to scrape the surface of her extraordinary talent as a singer and songwriter before her untimely death.

Her last recording, the fittingly titled “Body and Soul,” was a duet with Tony Bennett, who makes cameos in both documentaries. Bennett saved his most exquisite praise for Winehouse, insisting she belongs among the greatest female jazz vocalists of all time — with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone. But Bennett’s revelation about Winehouse and her gifts came too late. He said he wished he had met her sooner and told her to slow down, that “life teaches you how to live it, if only you live long enough.”

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