Give or take some priceless backstage footage culled from the Formula 1 archives of fiery drivers’ meetings or home video of Senna’s close family on holiday – including a tanned, toned Ayrton lounging in tight black Speedos on a yacht – this is mostly made up of TV clips and other found footage, with all the grainy sense of intimacy and immediacy that brings with it. The look of the film stresses the public rise and fall of Senna, while voices offscreen guide us through the story. Senna was a TV star and pin-up, a celebrity who took Formula 1 to new places and acclaim during the decade he dominated it. He first shot to prominence speeding through the rain at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. Later, he showed astonishing stamina when fighting to finish the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix stuck in sixth gear, determined not to fail at home. He flirted with his girlfriend, Adriane Galisteu, live on her TV show. And, of course, he died in front of cameras, his car flying off the track at Imola with the moment repeated endlessly on TV.
Inevitably, a cloud of doom hangs over the film’s final section, and Antonio Pinto’s varied score, moving from electro-jazz to more orchestral sounds and always with a distinctly Brazilian vibe, adjusts accordingly to remind us what’s coming. But this film isn’t ever an intro leading to a death. Most of it deals with a select chronology of races and crashes, team swaps and victories. Prost always looms over Senna’s shoulder, and Kapadia sets up an entertaining contrast between the Brazilian’s passion and the Frenchman’s steely pragmatism, as well as placing Prost in a Gallic axis of evil with Formula 1 boss Jean-Marie Balestre, who emerges as the film’s villain. ‘The best decision is my decision,’ he growls, smiling. It’s hard not to boo or throw things at the screen.
This is a Proustian madeleine of a film that will jolt the nostalgia of anyone who was even vaguely aware of Formula 1 in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Even if you couldn’t give two crank shafts about motor racing, Senna’s life remains a remarkable one and this film is a punchy, good-looking and clever tribute that should have an appeal far beyond a petrolhead crowd.