The crossover documentary hit has become increasingly commonplace over the past decade - that moment when festival awards and critical acclaim are surpassed and translate themselves into actual audience attendances. Michael Moore arguably kick-started the trend with Fahrenheit 9/11, a film so of its particular time that it demanded the cinema experience rather than the down-the-road television or DVD catch-up. Since then we’ve had the likes of Touching the Void and Man on Wire, films with a genuine buzz and genuine audience reaction - part of which appears to be a realisation that non-fiction can be just as exciting or exhilarating as the latest summer blockbuster. The situation at the moment is akin to that of independent cinema post-Sex, Lies, and Videotape except the question isn’t what will be this year’s Sundance smash but rather what will be the annual documentary hit. The contenders for 2011 have been a wide-ranging bunch including a pair of 3D efforts from acclaimed auteurs (Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders’ Pina), more 3D in the shape of the acclaimed TT3D: Closer to the Edge, the latest from the new breed (Project Nim directed by James Marsh, the man behind Man on Wire) and a low-budget homegrown affair that’s been attracting plenty of word of mouth, Tim Plester’s Way of the Morris. Yet all are likely to be eclipsed by the film which broke Touching the Void’s record for the highest grossing opening weekend for a documentary, Asif Kapadia’s Senna. Despite screening in only a limited number of cinemas it nonetheless secured box-office receipts totalling £375,000 during those initial days.
Kapadia, of course, isn’t known as a documentary filmmaker. He first made a mark with his 1997 short film The Sheep Thief, which picked up a prize at Cannes, and his 2001 feature debut The Warrior. Both combined an impressive visual eye with lean, almost classical, stories. He’s faltered a little since with thanks to the fairly standard US horror The Return (2005) and the underwhelming Far North (2007), although the latter nevertheless retained some of that simplicity and visual splendour. Arguably it is these qualities which brought Kapadia to Senna. The project was initiated by producer James Gay-Rees, spurred on by memories of his father’s tales of the racing driver when he worked at John Player Special, the tobacco firm that sponsored Senna’s Lotus. (This being the mid-eighties.) Once he had permission of the family he and writer Manish Pandey turned to Kapadia to ensure that the finished film would possess a cinematic edge. As such a number of decisions were made that would ultimately achieve these aims: firstly, a solid structure; secondly, the visual content would rely solely on archive footage (ie, no newly-recorded talking heads breaking up the action); and thirdly, massive levels of research so that the best, most remarkable - and oftentimes unseen - footage could be utilised.
Senna the film begins when Senna the racing driver was already a reality. A brief glimpse of his youthful go-karting days gives way to Monaco 1984. It was here that a 24-year-old Ayrton defied treacherous conditions and the limitations of his car (he started on the grid in 13th) to almost secure his first podium and, more than likely, win. I say almost as the race was halted on lap 31, before the halfway point. Yet this was the race that marked Senna’s arrival, demonstrating during his rookie season that he possessed a remarkable talent. Indeed, the film then proceeds to quickly chart his upswing in fortune: the move to Lotus in 1985 and his first ever win in Portugal that same year (where he lapped all but one of the other drivers on the circuit); his move to McLaren in 1988 and his first ever championship that same year.
Even during these early stages - of both the film and Senna’s early career - it’s quite stunning to realise just how much footage Kapadia, et al had at their disposal. The pictures really do tell the story, fully vindicating the decision to do without any new material. With that said, Senna does utilise fresh interviews as a means of gluing the whole thing together - various journalists, insiders, family members, co-workers and rivals appear on the soundtrack - but they remain just that: the adhesive and not the main event. Of course, the races themselves were televised around the world and therefore covered by international crews providing a wealth of angles and viewpoints. In other words it shouldn’t really surprise that we’re able to see every single corner of a given track or ride along with Senna thanks to car-mounted cameras (whose placement, incidentally, makes them feel far more dynamic than those currently used in Formula 1). Yet this doesn’t account for the wealth of ‘behind the scenes’ footage that has been unearthed, whether it be home movies shot by Leonardo Senna, Ayrton’s brother, or pre- and post-race TV appearances from a range of countries, including a particularly bizarre Brazilian Christmas special.
The strength of such footage reveals itself most prominently as Senna enters its middle phase, which is devoted to the driver’s main rivalries - with Alain Prost and with Formula 1’s inner-workings. Two races capture the tensions perfectly: the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix and the same fixture a year later. Both were to prove decisive to their respective years’ championships, ultimately confirming whether it would be Senna or Prost who took the prize. Both were also marked by the two drivers coming together on track, although the outcomes were slightly different. In 1989 a collision forced the two men off the circuit, with only Senna opting to continue and, despite his disadvantage, completing the race in first. However, he was to be disqualified in the aftermath for using an escape road immediately after the crash and therefore seen as gaining an unfair advantage. Prost, therefore, took the championship in 1989. Remarkably we are able to witness so much of the behind the scenes affairs, whether it is Prost heading immediately to the stewards’ offices after he’d exited the race or glimpses into the office where the various discussions as to whether Senna should be disqualified or not are taking place. All of the details are there and it makes for exhilarating, dramatic cinema.
The 1990 Japanese Grand Prix saw its collision take place much earlier, on the very first corner in fact. In this instance it was Senna who would ultimately prosper as it gave him an unassailable lead and, ultimately, the championship. But again it was a race dogged by controversy and, again, Senna is able to show key moments of its dramas. The main one occurs pre-race when we learn that pole position has been switched from the one side of the track to the other. In Senna’s mind this creates a disadvantage as it does follow the racing line - and there he is, in wonderfully candid footage, expressing these exact thoughts to one of the stewards right in the camera’s gaze. Likewise the fallout from the crash and the opinions of both Prost and Senna are there for all to see, and are equally as candid. (It is noted on the commentary that the filmmakers would oftentimes go for the interviews in which the drivers spoke in their native tongue as these ones tended to contain the greater honesty and immediacy.)
What these cumulative details tell us, other than capturing the dramas of the day, is that Senna has opted to go for the psychological portrait as opposed to the more straightforward biographical profile. We learn, for example, that he came from a privileged background, but such details are mentioned quickly and moved on from. What interests Kapadia and Pandey are the elements which made Senna tick. Thus the radio and television interviews in which he speaks about God or justifies his aggressive style become far more telling than details from childhood, say. Indeed, this is also why the central focus on his rivalries with Prost and Formula 1 in general become so telling: the money and the politics are at odd with the purity of Senna’s vision, which - as the film tells it - is solely about the racing.
If this makes Senna sound like a hagiography then that’s certainly true to an extent. The film comes fully endorsed by the family and rarely presents its subject in a bad light. And yet such a stance can be justified; after all if Senna is attempting to get inside the head of the men as he dominated his chosen field then surely it should match that element of self-belief. The success of such a strategy is shown during the famous interview conducted by Jackie Stewart in which he questions Senna’s aggressive driving style and the number of collisions and/or accidents he had caused. The question is arguably a perfectly reasoned one, but then it is Senna with whom we side simply because, thanks to the film, we’ve followed him up until this point and gotten to understand how he ticked. His eloquent - and emotional - response only confirms what we’ve already come to believe.
Furthermore, such an approach is likely to prompt a very human response from the audience. In this respect Senna isn’t really a sports film at all, and no doubt this also explains why it has had the crossover success. The interviews are refreshingly jargon-free (when, as with the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, a term such as the racing line is repeatedly mention, we are also given a concise explanation) and therefore there’s never any reason to feel as though a certain part of the audience is being left out in the cold. All you need do is watch, say, the footage from the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix - where Senna finally won in his home country, and this despite only having use of a single gear for the final seven laps - and gauge your own reaction to the events as they unfold. You certainly don’t have to be a passionate fan of the sport to respond to the sheer amount of emotion on display.
Needless to say, by the time we get to the final act and that fateful race in San Marino in 1994 the level of respect has been established and we can be fully assured that the coverage of that weekend will be tactful and considered. Perhaps it’s simply the foreknowledge of Senna’s death casting its shadow on the film, but there is a sense of unavoidable foreboding throughout Senna whenever we hear talk of safety issues or see an accident. Of course, Senna’s own death was preceded by Roland Ratzenberger’s the day before during the final qualification session and a particularly shocking - though not fatal - crash involving Rubens Barrichello the day previous (he escaped with just a broken wrist and cut lip, remarkably). Yet Kapadia and Pandey never force the issue or overplay any sense of fate; they simply let events unfold and tell their own story. Indeed, some may find the coverage of San Marino surprisingly short (it could, of course, have occupied an entire documentary) given the lack of emphasis on possible causes or any psychologising of what happened. There’s no guesswork - with regards to what was going on in Senna’s head, for example - simply because that would do the man a disservice. And yet the starkness and the simplicity of the handling is arguably what makes it so affecting: this is what happened, this was the outcome, this is how the people around Senna, and his fans, responded. Ultimately it comes down to respect and that’s exactly what Senna is, a fitting and respectful tribute to a remarkable man and a remarkable career.
Senna is gaining a release in various permutations via Universal in the UK. The news release here should explain the different versions whether it be collector’s edition, limited collector’s edition and so on. For review purposes Universal supplied a Blu-ray disc and it is this which shall be considered below…
The decision to release Senna onto Blu-ray is an interesting one given its sole reliance on archive footage and, moreover, videotape footage at that. Image-wise we are not getting terrific visuals, but rather a whole range of qualities ranging from the very poor (a cute Japanese TV interview) to the excellent (those rare occasions when actual film stock was employed). Of course, the best efforts were made during Senna’s production to make it all look as good as possible, though in some instances such efforts could only go so far. Nevertheless, Blu-ray is still allowing for less risk of compression than a standard DVD would, so that’s a definite positive, whilst the clarity of the intertitles and credits demonstrates that the disc itself has still been transferred to the best possible levels (even if that isn’t always immediately obvious).
However, the reason to purchase Senna on Blu-ray isn’t so much the visual quality as it is the sound quality. During the commentary it is noted by Kapadia that the soundtrack was in many ways the key ingredient and would be the device with which make mostly television footage come across as properly cinematic (alongside the editing decisions, of course). Thus Antonio Pinto, the man behind City of God’s score, was installed as composer and every effort was made to ensure that the footage was accompanied by the crispest and clearest of sounds. (Again, there is some discussion on the commentary about this, and it’s amazing as to how far the filmmakers went, fully aware of course that die hard F1 fans would immediately recognise a faked engine sound or the like.) Indeed, the soundtrack is the real jewel in this release and copes ably with the combination of years-old footage, expressive score and the newly recorded interview voices.
It’s the quality of the soundtrack which, in part, prompted me to have issues with the ‘extended’ version of the film which also appears on the disc. The interview material was all shot with a camera and just over 58 minutes’ worth of additional footage can be viewed either as a standalone extra or integrated into the film itself. Of course, this also goes against that initial decision not to include talking heads in the final cut, but more damagingly it means going from excellent sound quality to that which is far more variable (the Alain Prost interview material, in particular, suffers from a less than a perfect clarity) and which ultimately takes you out of the picture. (Indeed, the other problem is that it affects the pace; that lean quality inherent in much of Kapadia’s work is immediately lost.) My suggestion is simply to watch the interviews as a separate entity - they come with intertitles to explain what is being discussed so there’s no risk of confusion.
Elsewhere the disc also offers up some archive interview material, in this case a piece Senna recorded with Gerald Donaldson that is described on the menu as a ‘lost interview’. No explanation is given as to why this was once considered lost, but it makes for a worthwhile listen (all 39 minutes) for the insight into Senna that it affords, especially his religious convictions and how they affected his approach to racing. Also from the archive are three minutes worth of home movie footage shot by Leonardo Senna that didn’t make it into the film itself.
The main draw in terms of the extras is the commentary by Kapadia, Pandey and Gay-Rees. Each has there own take and angle on both Senna’s production and its subject resulting in a piece well worth the attention. Here we get the background to the project, the logistics of such a massive research project (the work of the research team - which was an international operation - really shouldn’t be underestimated here) and the usual behind-the-scenes insight, but also their own interpretations of the events as they unfold. Gay-Rees is the fan and the most obviously knowledgeable of the three and therefore brings a certain authority to the piece, yet the more immediate and emotional responses of Kapadia and Pandey (who sits somewhere in-between the two) are just as valid. It’s the combination of the three and their differing viewpoints that works so well. Furthermore, they also chat away continuously, pausing only during the footage of Senna’s fatal crash and its immediate aftermath - a fittingly respectful touch and befitting of their approach to the film itself.
Rounding off the package we also find a collection of trailers (Brazilian, Japanese and International) and a promo for the Ayrton Senna Foundation that was set up posthumously by Senna’s sister to help educate poverty-stricken children.