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Monday, November 29, 2021

Amy: Beyond the Stage, Design Museum review: a vivid celebration of an irreverent spirit

It’s hard to process that a decade has passed since the devastating death of Amy Winehouse, at just 27 – her richly expressive and instantly recognisable sound and style now seem suspended in time. The British singer-songwriter’s brief yet tumultuous spell in the spotlight produced two acclaimed studio LPs – 2003 debut Frank, and 2006’s legendary Back To Black, and her life and death have already inspired documentaries and international memorials. In 2020, her outfits and musical impact formed the focus of a display at LA’s Grammy Museum. Now, the Design Museum’s new multi-media exhibition Amy: Beyond The Stage expands further on her cultural legacy, bringing it home to the city that was her birthplace and playground.

Beyond The Stage is a vivid pick ‘n’ mix of personal items and recordings rather than a conventional chronology, and the input from Winehouse’s loved ones (in particular, her close friend and stylist Naomi Parry) creates a highly intimate atmosphere that, crucially, never seems intrusive. Two of the first exhibits are the Camden Square street sign covered with scrawled fan tributes from near her former home, and a video of 18-year-old Winehouse’s extraordinary audition for Island Records.

There’s a sweetly girlish flourish to her handwritten notes, from lyrics for unreleased demo tracks, to lists of ambitions and inspirations (including an early fixation with 1950s US diner style). There’s also an almost painful tenderness to family snapshots that show her playing local pub gigs, circa 2002, or having her hair cut as a teenager, at her nan’s. They are a world away from the paparazzi glare that would plague her final years.

While the exhibition doesn’t deny the darker notes of Winehouse’s life, including the destructive addictions that ultimately claimed her, it succeeds in being a celebratory experience that pays tribute to an exceptional talent and irreverent spirit, as well as the pure joy of music fandom itself. The section on her music includes a “studio” set-up, where we see an array of Winehouse’s releases, but also hear her enthusing passionately about the artists who inspired her: jazz and R&B legends such as Ray Charles, through to Motown girl groups and hip hop stars including Salt N Pepa. You get the sense of someone in the midst of continuous creative awakenings.

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