On 1st May 1994, the sporting world lost one of its most charismatic and well-loved personalities in an accident which would resonate around the world. Travelling at a perilous 130mph, Ayrton Senna crashed his Williams-Renault Formula One car into the now infamous Tamburello corner of the San Marino Grand Prix. The collision led to a piece of his suspension flying off the nose of the car and making a devastatingly fatal blow to his helmet. It followed a similar incident during the previous days qualifying heats when Austrian driver Rolan Ratzenberger slammed into the same wall and died instantly. Yet there remains something so endearing, so mesmerising about this flamboyant Brazilian that whilst both their bodies may have been regrettably swept of the track on that fateful spring weekend, Senna’s spirit continues to live on amongst the public consciousness.
Director Asif Kapadia’s documentary of this fallen celebrity focuses on Ayrton Senna’s decade competing in Formula One. We follow his journey from lowly debutant driver for Toelman through his rapid rise up the Formula One Ladder, from Lotus to McLaren (winning the world championship an impressive three times) and, finally, with team Williams, where he would abruptly end his racing career.
We witness his struggles on the track against McLaren team mate and fierce rival Alain Prost (a sideshow which undoubtedly created an unparalleled buzz around a sport not normally followed for its personal confrontations), to the off track world of rigid politics, advanced motoring technology and ludicrous financial endorsements that many, including Senna, believe removed any true sense of competitiveness from the sport long ago.
However, Senna isn’t a documentary about Formula One but rather an intimate portrait of a global superstar who staunchly stuck to his views and refused to play by anyone else’s rules. A humble celebrity who remained fiercely patriotic and charitable to his impoverished homeland, and stood not only as a spokesman for his sport, but an ambassador for everything a celebrity should be…
The film’s most significant achievement has to be the vast range of footage that director Kapadia has managed to lay his hands on (impressively convincing Bernie Ecclestone to open the private video vaults of the Formula One archives). From intimate family films to on board driver cameras, the depth of material on show invites us into not just the professional side of Senna’s life but also his private world. Like the most intricate jigsaw puzzle, it’s all wonderfully and lovingly pieced together to create a seamless flow between scenes, making the viewer feel more a part of the story than simply a fly on the wall. We witness the hard work Senna put into helping poor Brazilian children, the close knit, down to earth family unit he would escape to, and his constant professional conflicts regarding the political bureaucracy of his sport.
Unlike your archetypal sporting documentary, Senna has no single narrator, instead using personal testimonies sparingly with the majority of the film’s story being told by Senna himself from archived sound bites, press conferences and interviews. It gives the film a haunting quality, which creates an existential aroma around it, making the viewer feel like they’re on an incredibly personal journey with this fascinating and deeply spiritual man. There’s also none of the clichéd ‘talking head’ segments we’re used to from such documentaries, which often interrupt a film’s flow and inject too many external and often contradictory opinions. Instead, we are very much left to make our own opinions, deciding on our view of this racing car driver purely from witnessing his work and hearing him speak, as opposed to being dictated by what others say about him. This touchingly honest approach is achieved not through the director’s sure-handed guidance, but from Senna himself. Rarely are we presented with such a humble, shy but equally entertaining sports man – a man who clearly loves what he does far more than the fame and money that often accompanies (and corrupts this kind of monumental sporting success). This provides us with an opportunity to witness his contagiously optimistic and passionate personality as it positively radiates out from the screen.
There are many who believe this approach to documentary filmmaking is unnecessarily intrusive and crosses the line of personal privacy. The final twenty-five minutes of the film focuses on the inevitable ending – the incident of the San Marino Grand Prix. It has been argued that we could have been spared the in-car footage of Senna’s final moments, with many seeing this as an invasive, personal intrusion that leans towards gross voyeurism. However, this is a complement to the film’s ability to propel us into Senna’s world, making us susceptible to the full emotive force of this tragic accident – it makes this unfortunate outcome as powerfully upsetting as it was all those years ago.
The second act’s focus on Senna’s fierce rivalry with former team mate Alain Prost adds a whole other dimension to the blue print of this documentary, creating a thrilling tale about professional jealousy and conflict between two highly driven, competitive men at the top of their profession. Prost, however, is not our central antagonist, rather an example of how the political game of Formula One should be played. The main villain depicted here is Jean Marie Balestre, the then chief of Formula One. His constant struggles with Ayrton reveal him to be our classic pantomime baddie and their negatively charged relationship drives the narrative forward. This attention to the dramatic sideshow surrounding Senna’s career turns what could have been a painfully formulaic sports documentary into something more akin to a biopic, which, for a little while, creates a whole new narrative that pulls us deeper into this highly secretive world, successfully capturing the pomp and political circumstances of the sport.
The film’s pace is dictated by two important factors, music and editing, which, throughout the movie, combine harmoniously to catalyse the film’s emotional core. Considering the subject matter, the film had to feel fast, full of adrenaline and most importantly exciting – something modern coverage of the sport has failed to capture. The director’s flawless editing manages to combine these varying pieces of stock footage into a seamless collection of shots that moves so effortlessly that the film never loses momentum, only occasionally taking a pit stop to let us catch our breath. The music ranges from feverish Brazilian bossanova to frantic hand drums and all the way to ambient strings, which culminates in an emotional rollercoaster ride, constantly creating an appropriate mood to accompany the images we’re presented with.
This historical record of possibly the most charismatic sportsmen of modern times manages to not only act as a snapshot documenting the history of Formula One but transcends the sport and creates a highly emotive drama that will speak to a wider audience than those with a vested interest in the sport. It’s an exquisitely enjoyable journey that like Senna’s career, feels all too brief.