Documentaries are too often not treated as films proper. They’re talked about less as a type of film than a totally separate art form, shunted off in the back somewhere. No documentary has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. I realise the Oscars have a pretty blinkered point of view, but even other forms of cinema ghettoised at the Oscars have gotten some Best Picture nominations: thirteen films not in the English language, only a handful of horror movies, just three animated films, but not a single documentary. It’s kind of insane, if you think about it.
Part of it is that way too many documentaries are not made like films proper. Far too many rely so heavily on their subject being of interest that they don’t make the telling interesting in its own right. You just film a bunch of talking heads saying what happened and call it a day. I’m not criticising documentaries as a whole, here – lots and lots and lots of fiction films are visually lazy and uninteresting, and if the subject is strong enough, a documentary can be great whether it’s boldly ambitious or just talking heads telling you what happened. I recently watched a TV documentary about Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and even though the talking heads were more or less entirely boring and terrible, I still enjoyed it because it had lots of clips of Nichols and May sketches. But I think that exact strength allows us to imagine that documentaries are good if their subjects are interesting, that nothing much else goes into it. It allows us to buy into the division of documentaries from the rest of filmmaking. I think all the time about Michael Moore’s frustration at being called a “documentarian”, rather than a documentary filmmaker, since it’s not like people call Martin Scorsese a fiction-atarian. (The irony, of course, is that Scorsese is an accomplished documentary filmmaker too, but most of the time nobody talks about his documentaries in the same breath as his fiction films.)
I love Asif Kapadia’s documentaries in part because there’s no way that anyone, even subconsciously, could think of them not as “real” films. His 2010 film Senna – about the life and career of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna – is a sports movie in the truest sense, following his rivalry with Alain Prost like Rocky and Apollo Creed. Senna was followed by Amy, his Oscar-winning documentary about Amy Winehouse, in 2015, and Diego Maradona in 2019. Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona form a trilogy both thematically and stylistically: each is a chronicle of creative genius and the pressure of fame, pieced together from archival footage.
Kapadia’s documentaries have no talking head interviews and no authoritative commentary. They’re a collage of archive, both private – home videos and, in Maradona’s case, footage from an abandoned documentary project filmed in the 1980s – and public – TV appearances, press conferences, paparazzi footage, races, concerts, football matches. Like the pop art movement decades prior, Kapadia takes existing elements of mass culture and transforms and recontextualises them. A clip of Ayrton Senna answering a press question on who was the driver he got the most satisfaction in racing – he speaks wistfully go-karting in the 1970s against a no-name, because that was pure racing, without any of that other stuff getting in the way – would, on its own, be an amusing curio. But it’s imbued with such weight and emotion because it comes at the film’s end, when we’ve seen his struggle against the system and his tragic death. When we’ve seen all the other stuff – money, politics, technology, fame – get in the way of the thing that Senna so loves and is so brilliant at: pure racing.
There are retrospective interviews in the documentaries, sure, but only in audio form, alongside archival audio: often you can’t distinguish between them. I think that when Mark Ronson tells us in voiceover about how Amy Winehouse wrote ‘Back to Black’ he’s speaking after she’s passed away, but it’s right alongside a voiceover of Amy herself talking about her songwriting process. Both are over footage of her recording ‘Back to Black’ in the studio with Ronson, with the audio alternating between her live singing and the finished recording. Instead of something solid and definitive, interviews conducted for the documentaries assimilate into the vast and eclectic collage. Like Steven Rose wrote in The Guardian’s review of Senna, Kapadia’s use of archival footage means “we’re not so much hearing what happened in the past as seeing it happen before our eyes.” It’s stunning at the level of pure craft, but also gives the stories an immediacy and an intimacy that makes them hit all the harder. Each film paints a portrait of Senna or Winehouse or Maradona that vividly captures their genius. You really feel like you get to see for yourself how special and talented this person was, instead of being told that they were and taking it on faith.
Kapadia described Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona as “a trilogy of child geniuses and fame, and the effect it can have, and what they mean to their country and what they mean to people,” with each of them feeling like they were “fighting a system” in various ways. All of this is set out clearly in Senna, which has a purity in its construction that is hard not to be charmed by. Ayrton Senna is portrayed with a boyish smile and a disarming naivety, believing earnestly in the principle that the best man wins. Much of the film focuses on his rivalry with Alain Prost, his teammate at McLaren: at the suggestion that he should have gone easier on Prost when they were both at McLaren, Senna says, “If you no longer go for a gap, you’re no longer a racing driver.” More significant, though, are his battles with FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre. His fight for fairness and for driver safety, in the face of a system that’s more interested in playing politics than the good of motor sport, is the film’s heart. His devastated reaction to Roland Ratzenberger’s death is haunting. Senna’s own death shortly after is even more so.
Senna longs for the pure racing of his go-kart days, and the same is true of Winehouse and Maradona in their own ways. Each of them is trying to be a creative person in a world that demands so much else of them, that ties their achievements in sport or music to fame so tightly that they can’t pursue one without being dropped into the other. Fame in Kapadia’s trilogy has its upsides – Senna, Winehouse and Maradona become different kinds of beloved heroes, inspiring millions – but is ultimately a hideous, destructive, inescapable beast. In Amy, Winehouse tells us that she had no interest in becoming a star, she’s just a “girl that sings”. The film does a brilliant job of conveying the scope of Winehouse’s gift, particularly in its use of home movie footage, letting us see her as a kid and teen: a north London girl with an unexpected rich, soulful voice. Simultaneously preternaturally talented and just a regular girl.
Amy is hard to describe without resorting to the very clichés Kapadia’s film so resists. Reviews often described it as a rise-and-fall story, and that’s not incorrect, exactly, but it’s a little too neat and tidy. If Kapadia’s Senna is boyish and naive, his Amy Winehouse has a darkness in her that fuels her work. Her “rise” is full of exploitation and betrayal, and her “fall” is full of desperate love. It’s a film that bursts with joy and grief – one after the other, yes, but mixed together, too. It is a story about the pressures of fame, but in a way that coils in slowly from the outset: a young girl singing “in dark bars and jazz dens, spewing her soul into the audience’s laps,” or her once-absent father bearing down on her. When superstardom comes, the pressure coils tighter and tighter. Her friends and colleagues jostle to assure the audience that they certainly weren’t the ones who introduced Amy to drugs, and none of them come out the better for it.
Each of the films is named after the person they’re about, but in three different ways: Senna is his surname, Amy is her first name, Diego Maradona is his full name. Diego Maradona continues many of the themes of Senna and Amy – like Senna, Maradona battles the system that controls his sport to its detriment, and like Winehouse, the pressures of fame constrict in on him unbearably – but subverts many more. Most obviously, whereas Senna and Winehouse died tragically young, Maradona – improbably – survives. He lives to grow old. But part of how he manages it is to cleave himself in two: there’s Diego and there’s Maradona. The whole film is about this dichotomy, between the sweet, intelligent, justice-driven Diego, raised in the slums of Argentina, and Maradona, the mafia-connected party boy with a cocaine addiction and countless infidelities under his belt who wears his arrogance like armour.
“With Diego I would go to the end of the world,” says his personal trainer, Fernando Signorini. “But with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a single step.”
The film focuses primarily on Maradona’s time at SSC Napoli in the 1980s. The poorest club in the Italian league bought the most expensive player in the world, and there’s such joy in watching him become their hero and champion. He identifies with Napoli as the ultimate underdog – the class dynamic between Napoli and the wealthy north-Italian clubs has an obvious appeal to Maradona, a life-long socialist – and leads the team to two Serie A titles. The city is adorned with murals in his honour. He’s almost a demigod. But like Winehouse, this demands so much more from him than his talent. The intensity of their adoration is too bright a spotlight, and in the end, can be switched from love to hate easily. He’s a demigod and then he’s a villain, but he’s never just a man. He’s never allowed to just be Diego. Diego Maradona pays special attention to Maradona’s performance in the 1986 World Cup quarter final against England. The match exemplifies this dichotomy within the man. On one hand, he scores an almost supernaturally brilliant goal – later voted the goal of the century – in a pure, beautiful display of talent and skill, and on the other, there’s the Hand of God: the controversial goal he scored illegally using his hand. (Maradona himself links it to the Falklands War – Argentina’s symbolic revenge against the English.)
Great documentaries are great films whether you cared about their subject already or not. I think this is much more obviously true about fiction films – you don’t need to be a boxing fan to like Rocky or Raging Bull, you don’t need to care about law to enjoy a courtroom drama. When a film’s great, it’s great, regardless of what you’re bringing into it, and that’s no less true for documentaries. Kapadia’s films are perfect proof of this: I don’t know anything about Formula One and I love Senna; I only really knew Amy Winehouse’s big radio hits and Amy made me cry; I have spent my whole life avoiding watching soccer but think everyone on earth should see Diego Maradona. Kapadia’s documentaries give me the rush of when I first fell in love with movies, and make me feel silly for any moment where I didn’t think documentaries could make me feel that way.