'Senna': He Could Dance a Dance with That Car

Ayrton Senna was a phenomenon, and as such, he was filmed, interviewed, and photographed repeatedly throughout his career, images now assembled as the documentary Senna.


Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Ayrton Senna, Reginaldo Leme, Ron Dennis, John Bisignano, Viviane Senna
Rated: NR
Studio: Universal
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-08-12 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-06-11 (General release)

"May God always protect him from the danger he may face, that's my greatest fear." As she speaks, Neyde Senna da Silva looks both proud and nervous. At the time, in 1978, her son Ayrton is a rising star. He stands beside her in this archival footage, smiling slightly as his father Milton da Silva, hovers nearby.

This interview cuts to another, Ayrton Senna on his own, and contemplative. "Few people really do know myself," he says. "They just really don’t understand what it takes from a racing driver, somebody that has left behind, thousands and thousands of miles away family and friends, to live in Europe, being so young. And always in a fighting way. Nothing has ever come easy." A cut to yet another interview shows Senna looking a bit jauntier, standing before a dressing trailer. "I think God gave me this chance," he asserts, "which I have been waiting for, for so long."

That chance is to drive Formula One cars, which he began to do in 1984. Before then, the Brazilian-born Senna got his start in karting, at age 13, and then open-wheel racing, earning five championships in three years. After he turned to F1, he won 41 Grands Prix and a three World Championships. In a word, Senna was a phenomenon, and as such, he was filmed, interviewed, and photographed repeatedly throughout his career, images now assembled as the documentary Senna.

This structure lends Asif Kapadia's film a particular sort of brilliance, a mix of then and now that's both haunting and immediate. In part, this effect is a function of Senna's own story: his life was famously cut short when in 1994, when his car crashed during Italy's San Marino Grand Prix. But it's also produced in the texture of the documentary, the grainy TV clips, the point-of-view driving shots, the footage of drivers, crewmembers, and journalists at work and on display. There's not a moment of the film that feels staged, but of course, that's the ingenious fiction of celebrity: by turns thoughtful and frustrated, generous and arrogant, Senna appears here always past and ever present, an image constructed out of dreams and needs, an image that's simultaneously made up and sincere, abstract and irresistible, history and myth.

As Senna makes it complicated case about Senna, it doesn’t offer any more than the footage and the opinions. The Senna who lived off camera, apart from photos taken by his family or TV interviews, is not a factor here. You don't learn much about his childhood, his siblings, his ex-wife (whom he married in Brazil as a young man and divorced before he started driving Formula One, the 15-year-old girlfriend (when he was 25), or the millions of dollars he contributed to poor children's organizations in Brazil.

But as the film omits such private particulars, it does offer more than a few clips wherein Senna asserts his Catholic faith in God. These public declarations helped to create and sustain his legend: if some observers worry that he sees his talents and triumphs as god-given (see also: Tim Tebow), others see in his pronouncements a dangerous sense of fatedness. Following an early accident, Senna says, that even though he feels responsible for what happened ("I opened windows for mistakes"), he's able to see beyond it. "Somehow," he says "I got closer to God and that has been very important to me as a man." And again, "I visualized God," he says after he's won 1988 Suzuka Grand Prix and World Championship, "I have it registered in my memory, it has become a part of me."

His racing style is legendary, and turned poetic in some estimations. "There's only one word that describes Ayrton's style and that is fast," says ESPN commentator John Bisignano as you watch frankly thrilling point of view footage from inside a car. "He would take the car beyond its designed capabilities. He would brake later, fly into these corners when the car was just over the edge, and somehow he could dance a dance with that car to where it stayed on the track."

Other images suggest that Ayrton is occasionally less spiritual, and more conventionally competitive, and also that he understands and resents the politics that frame the sport he loves so much. Looking back on his first racing experiences, in karting, before Formula One, he tells an interviewer in 1978, "It was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn’t any politics involved in it, no money involved either. Like it was real racing." Life in the show is increasingly complicated, as teams, cars, and finances shape starts and outcomes. If Senna is regularly touted as a gifted driver, it matters what kind of car he's driving, who's working on it, how advanced the technologies may be, and especially, where he's positioned on the track and how judges assess penalties.

When he's joined the McLaren team in 1988, he races alongside his teammate and greatest rival Alain Prost. For the next five years, the men vie for supremacy on the track and in self-imaging, not always managing their emotions for the cameras. "Everything went up," says one observer of the sparring between Prost and Senna. "People talked about it because it was controversial, shocking, and fascinating." As the competition boosts TV ratings and racetrack attendance, sells newspapers and sports shows, the two men are as spectacular as they need to be, gesticulating on the track and eventually parting ways professionally. (Prost went so far as to sign with a new team, Williams, with the condition they would never sign Senna.)

Senna's own trajectory within the film is set, of course. And as Senna heads toward San Marino 1994, it focuses on images that show his anxiety, his restlessness, his responses to the two accidents that preceded his on the same track, during the same meet. Reginaldo Leme, commentator for Globo, says, " I'd never seen Senna as tense as he was that weekend. I never saw him make a smile. He was constantly focused, annoyed saddened really." As Leme remembers, you see footage that seems to confirm his version: Senna's messing with his hair, he's not smiling, he's pulling his cap low over his eyes. "It's the balance," Senna tells a reporter who's asked him about car troubles. "Changing the balance."

Less celebratory than contemplative, more nuanced than definitive, Senna articulates the risks of racing alongside its potential for nearly ecstatic experiences. A heady mix of material, psychic, and emotional elements, the film still keeps focused on how that mix is created.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.