A gut-thumping testament in pen and mascara to a talent lost far too young
Amy: Beyond the Stage Design Museum, London ★★★★☆
Alined A4 notebook is pinned open on a board, heavily doodled with love hearts and the random thoughts of an 18-year-old girl, not so different to every other 18-year-old girl in history. “Just plain fuckin’ nice” is the title of a list of four retro-classic songs, including Bobby Darin’s I Wanna Be Around (1965), alongside the words “Chris Taylor loves Amy Winehouse” (with loves scored out), “Paul Watson loves Amy Winehouse” (with loves scored out), meticulous notes on how to fill in the form and send a cheque to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, a shopping list including “£200 – fridge, £40 – Shelley’s Shoes, £50 – Chanel No. 5?”, and five significantly more ominous words among the love hearts: “diet no dairy or carbs”.
It’s testament to the mystery and absurdity of fame how the scraps of ordinary life become archaeological treasures in death, but it’s these inner-world details that stay with you throughout Amy: Beyond the Stage, the Design Museum’s first exhibition dedicated to a single musical artist. More than a year in production and instigated by her dad, Mitch (who asked Amy’s stylist, Naomi Perry, to approach the museum), it’s a mesmerising celebration of a still painfully short life: early-years notebooks and photos gifted by Amy’s mum, Janis; TV screens showing early interviews and acoustic demo performances (unleashing the Winehouse personality and vocal talent); a classy reconstruction of London’s Metropolis Studios; handwritten lyrics from Frank and Back to Black – unflinchingly honest and often hilarious – now under glass like exotic butterflies.
There’s also a palpable sadness: her famed frocks static on mannequins, many of which are on loan after being sold at auction this November in Los Angeles, amassing over $4m (£3m).
The most affecting artefacts, though, are elsewhere: the street signs of Camden Square, north London, which fans claimed as graffitied books of condolence from the day she died in July 2011, a used mascara from the Back to Black era.
The psychological turmoil Winehouse endured, through the perils of fame and addiction, is seen through a different lens today. One exhibit, In the limelight, ponders how the mainstream media of the mid-to-late 2000s, which gleefully pilloried her struggles, has now evolved in “growing awareness”. Would she be alive, now, had she received today’s level of support? Gallingly, she probably would.
The exhibition finale, an immersive experience showing performance footage of Tears Dry on Their Own, from Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2007, the images distorted into a dreamscape, simultaneously beautiful, euphoric and disturbingly ghostly. It’s a gut thumper of a conclusion.
From tomorrow until 10 February
Handwritten lyrics – honest and often hilarious – under glass like exotic butterflies