Commentary

'Senna' on Blu-ray hits new heights

Updated: July 20, 2012, 4:03 PM ET
By K. Lee Davis | ESPN.com

Ayrton SennaPascal Rondeau/Getty ImagesAyrton Senna was a champion and worldwide star before his untimely death in a race crash in 1994. The documentary "Senna" goes a long way toward showing generations of fans who didn't get to see him why he was so popular.

How do you recount the life of a legend in less than two hours? If anyone has ever achieved it, decorated director Asif Kapadia has.

The story of Ayrton Senna is a difficult one. The cinematic telling of his life and his significance to those around the world was mind-boggling, not just to race fans but also to those who didn't yet know his story.

Senna's death was shown live across the globe. It was heart wrenching. It was final. It was devastating.

Kapadia and screenwriter Manish Pandey were among the millions saddened on May 1, 1994, when Senna was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. They were fans of "sport" as they say in Great Britain. Pandey, in particular, was an avid fan of Formula One.

Unlike so many, Kapadia and Pandey sought a way to tell the story of one of the greatest drivers in Formula One history, one of the greatest in all of racing history. They took the time to make sure they could tell it well.

It may have taken them years, but Kapadia said they were determined to tell Senna's story, so well-known, in a way few expected.

[+] EnlargeAsif Kapadia
Jemal Countess/Getty ImagesAsif Kapadia accepts the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary for "Senna" at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

The results were remarkable when the film was released in 2010, and they are no less so on the Blu-ray version released July 10 -- finally -- in the United States.

"The old footage is so grainy at times, so raw," Kapadia said, "but it's also beautiful.

"You see what the viewers then saw -- Senna's grace, his greatness. And it really does come alive even more on the Blu-ray release than it did on the first DVD release. I just couldn't be happier with the way it looks now. It's very much a complete film."

There's good reason "Senna" won best-in-class accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Adelaide Film Festival and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards: Kapadia and Pandey did their jobs well.

Kapadia has moved on to other endeavors, a short documentary titled "The Odyssey" being his latest. It is about London and Londoners preparing for the Olympics, from the 2005 announcement it would be the host city to this year.

The Blu-ray version of "Senna" seems superior to my eyes, and I have seen every version of the film available in the United States. It just pops; it looks alive. It's what I remember on the big screen but in the comfort of home.

And the story is important and wonderfully crafted.

The often-unfriendly rivalry with Alain Prost is a central theme, as are the political battles Senna had with Jean-Marie Balestre, the head of the sport's ruling body. But the racing career of Senna, which had its down times, is always front and center.

The fragility of that balance between the high of winning and the low of finishing adrift -- or of fighting authority when you believe you are in the right -- is depicted in sometimes stark terms, with Kapadia using rain as a device to switch moods, a technique he has implemented in other films, including "The Sheep Thief," "The Warrior" and "Far North."

Kapadia said he knew his audience would rebel if it thought it was pandered to, but he had to tell the story in a way to draw in those who knew nothing about Senna as well.

"We had to know that we would have to be accurate," he said. "We had to realize that so much of our audience knew the story of Ayrton Senna. But how do you tell the story of Ayrton Senna to those that don't know so much about him?

"We had to let Senna and those who were around him tell that story -- with many more recent interviews brought in -- to bring out his essence. Luckily, we found so much footage that helped us do that."

That balance is struck beautifully.

One of the hallmarks of the film in theaters was the raw power of the archival footage filmed of Senna in the 1980s and '90s. It was a time when old television specs were the best you could expect to get on a given subject. And they are definitely not high-definition.

Kapadia didn't take that lightly. But as in his earlier films, he trusted his gut.

In those films, he used the stark landscapes to help tell the story. In "Senna," he let the old footage help tell the tale. Sometimes in F1 -- as any fan knows -- the landscapes can be stark.

But how does he expect that to play in the future?

[+] EnlargeAlain Prost, Ayrton Senna
Pascal Rondeau/Allsport Alain Prost, left, and Ayrton Senna were teammates at times but always rivals. Prost served as a pallbearer at Senna's funeral.

"It is a thing of its time," Kapadia said. "That was a time when things on television were not as sharp as we expect today, but there's nothing wrong with that. That was the best [TV] resolution of that time, and it is still beautiful, in its own way. But the real question was how do we tell this story, ended 15 years ago as it would seem, and bring it to a contemporary audience?

"We decided to let the footage speak for itself, and I would think it would speak to many generations to come."

He is right. Nothing conveys reality like actual footage of racing, on the track and raw. What Kapadia found isn't just beautiful, it is remarkable to relive or even to see for the first time.

But the Senna story is ultimately a sad one. You know the outcome, after all, but it is in this reality that the film stands out. Senna had reached mythic proportions before his death.

Senna's death was one in a string that darkened the sport for the next seven years, until another champion was lost when Dale Earnhardt was killed in February 2001. In between, so many other drivers would be gone -- no less deserving of remembrance -- that it was numbing.

But Senna was the one that may have hurt the most. It was the one mourned throughout the world, not just the United States.

For a seven-year period before and after May 1, 1994, the list of the racing dead is long and sobering. The day before Senna died, Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying at San Marino.

Neil Bonnett died preparing for the Daytona 500 earlier that year. Rodney Orr too.

John Nemechek was killed in a NASCAR accident in 1997. American open-wheel racing lost Scott Brayton, Jeff Krosnoff, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore in short order from 1996-99.

In 2000, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper were killed in one of NASCAR's deadliest years. Many had started to sound an alarm -- finally -- six years after Senna's death.

Formula One has not suffered a fatality since Senna. NASCAR has not had one since Earnhardt. The IndyCar Series has seen three drivers killed since Moore's death.

For me, one final aspect of the film that is so endearing is the hope so many have put into racing. So much of that is based on the danger we know the drivers we watch put themselves in.

It's one of the things that sets racing fans apart.

The greatest racers are rarely surly. They are almost always well-spoken. They are usually polite, if distant. Senna was all of those things.

And the greatest racers aren't like the greatest athletes in other sports. They don't count their losses in torn ACLs and career-ending injuries that don't shorten their lives. The losses are counted by the end of lives -- and on the rarest of occasions, lives still lived but forever marred by searing injuries far more desperate than those suffered on any other playing field. There are debilitating burns and dozens of broken bones -- even multiple amputations.

If you're not a fan of racing, that is something "Senna" helps you realize.

Kapadia knew the most important part of that aspect had to be present.

"You had to have the faith element in it. You really did," he said. "And by faith, I mean not worrying about the most horrible outcome. It's why the drivers get in their cars. It's why the fans watch the races. It's the whole reason for being in racing.

"And there is no other sport like that."