It is not unusual that minutes into an Asif Kapadia documentary, one begins to focus on the main character’s face; a face that has the power to shape the narrative of the film in ways unimaginable and continues to haunt you for many days after. What is even more incredible is that none of it has been shot by the director himself. It is no wonder then, that Kapadia is known as the God of newsreel and archival footage, a man who has mastered the art of weaving an entire film from reams and scraps of footage he has acquired from different sources and labored with over time.
In Senna (2010), Asif Kapadia completely eliminated the presence of ‘talking heads’, using instead, freshly recorded voice-overs to propel the narrative forward. It was a technique that hadn’t been explored before and it was revolutionary. With Senna, Kapadia had found his niche which he continued to improve upon with Amy (2015) and his most recent venture, Diego Maradona (2019).
Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racing champion and the subject of Kapadia’s debut documentary comes across as a charming, driven and godly man, captivating the audience instantly. He is cocky, eloquent and flirtatious in some interviews, deeply insightful in others. The director refrains from giving us a background of Senna’s childhood and adolescent years, diving straight into his debut at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix that brought him into the public eye. From this point until Senna’s terrible death 10 years later, the film employs a volley of pacey clips of Senna on the tracks to punctuate his meteoric rise in the world of Formula One, his fractured relationship with former team-mate and rival Alain Prost and his very blatant contempt for the politics surrounding sports that he is constantly up against. For someone who was go-karting from the age of 13, a wizard in the rain, a man unafraid of speed, Senna realizes he has to embrace the computerized enhancement of racing cars and the complications it brings. This coupled with the deaths and injuries of his colleagues render him suspicious of his own fate. But, his fame prevents him from throwing in the towel.
With Amy, Kapadia furthers his exploration of the impact of fame on young celebrities. Singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse has no qualms stating very early in the film that she’d go mad if she ever got famous. It is this very premonition that drives the narrative of the film. As she croons ‘Happy Birthday’ to her cousin in a home video in the beginning, it’s very hard to imagine how anything bad can befall the fresh-faced, sassy teenager dripping with confidence. We, as the audience are aware that Amy wants to sing minus the stardom, but she’s good and the world wants a piece of her. As a young person suddenly pushed into the spotlight, she falters – gradual at first and then very, very rapidly – fueled by her flawed relationship with her parents, her maddening love for a selfish drug addict and her own vulnerable, addictive personality. Amy begs for normalcy over and over again in the film, her pleas shoved aside by her gold-digger father and other crew until she is pushed to breaking point and eventually, death. The vicious media sadists are no less responsible for dragging the young and visibly troubled Amy through the dirt every chance they get.
While Diego Maradona deals with mostly the same issues of complicated stardom as Senna and Amy, the subject of this installment is still very much alive and ‘kicking’ as opposed to his biographical predecessors. Having spent time with the football legend himself, Kapadia’s extensive interviews with Maradona help you understand the controversial player, his meteoric rise and tragic downfall in the midst of the messy politics of Naples, Italy and the unshakeable influence of the mafia. At one point his trainer, Fernando Signorini alludes to the dual personalities of the footballer – there is Diego, the kid with insecurities, a wonderful boy and there is Maradona, the character he adopted in order to deal with the football business and the media; who couldn’t show any weakness. Kapadia carefully peels away the layers to expose a troubled boy who aspired only to play football and buy his family a house, lifted up to the status of a demigod by the media and the people and then smashed to pieces. Of all the three films, Diego Maradona is the only one that actually sheds light on a celebrity in the aftermath of his ruin.
With each film, Asif Kapadia’s story-telling grows; he gives you more information to absorb. The films, edited by Chris King, suddenly take a moment of pause in the midst of all the action where the subjects are allowed to perform for the viewing audience. Kapadia allows Senna’s race, Maradona’s match or Amy’s song to finish before sprinting ahead to the next segment. Antonio Pinto’s score for each film adds to and uplift the scenes in a way that make you wish you could turn back time for the tragic characters.
There is no doubt that the director knows and loves his characters and wants the audience to view them through the same lens he has. Even his characters seem to know when they have reached a point of no return – Senna sitting in his car, worriedly shaking his head moments before his car crashed and he died; Amy stumbling about at a concert in Belgrade, too drunk to perform and getting booed by the audience and Maradona at a Christmas party just after the 1990 FIFA World Cup gazing into the distance, distracted by the doom that will befall him. Asif Kapadia’s trilogy only reaffirms the age-old saying, “It’s lonely at the top.”