Friday, December 8, 2000
The Art of Amalia / *** (2000)
She was a Portuguese singer born into a low-class neighborhood of Lisbon in 1920, who, at age four, was already being asked to sing for the neighbors. In 1939 she officially began her career as a nightclub singer, captivating her audiences with a voice that would melt even the coldest hearts, and well into the 1940s, a recording and movie career were already beginning to take shape. On home turf, her records and movies broke several records, while abroad, listeners slowly started catching on to the depth of her vocals and sound of her music.
But why didn't the seemingly universal appeal transcend the U.S. boundaries? It can be argued that this nation is better suited to music somewhat farther behind in the times compared to that of other countries, and that audiences are seldom willing to embrace new styles and approaches. Techno music, for instance, may have found a massive audience over on this continent about five years or so ago, but it had for almost ten more years already established a healthy fan base overseas.
The music Rodrigues had success in is what the Portuguese refer to as "Fado," a form of expression using what the singer herself refers to as "bad destiny," or raw and often painful emotional content. Indeed in today's U.S. market, Fado would be classified as a niche musical genre, but for Portugal, and eventually several other nearby countries, it was more than just a demassified style of musical expression; it was a powerful technique of connecting life to art, with one of the most beautiful voices bestowed upon a human being serving as the bridge. A traditional argument on behalf of nations like ours is that artists who sing in different languages most often find it hard to appeal to those who primarily speak and understand other dialects. But bands and artists have often had success in breaking through to markets with different language comprehension: Amália herself, who traditionally sang in her native language, had great success in Japan, for example. In this case, Americans were simply not ready for a challenge.
Almeida's documentary effectively provides insight into one of the world's great wonders, using old archival footage from public appearances, accounts from close friends (mostly poets who wrote material specifically for her to sing), and even an actual interview with the woman herself, who describes the events that unfolded in her life in fascinating detail. The movie's tone is very informative, edited together with careful detail, and usually a touch of sporadic intrigue thrown into the mix. One of the more memorable surprise moments in her life documented here actually involves the filming of one of her movies, in which she was singing to a crowd on camera. The audience at one instance, she notes, forgot they were on the set of a movie, and actually broke out into thunderous applause after the tune was over. The director's response to this? "The scene is ruined, but that's a good sign."
Before she died, Rodrigues thought of Almeida as "her private filmmaker," and no wonder; this is the director's fourth film using her life as source material, following the concert feature "Amália, Live In New York City," "Amália, A Strange Way Of Life" (which was actually a five-part documentary that was cut down to size to become this film), and "Amália-Expo '98." In an interview with the Internet site Film Threat, Almeida clarified his apparent obsession over the artist: "I absolutely love Amália Rodrigues and her music, so it wasn't hard to keep making films about her. You could say that I became obsessed with this extraordinary woman."
The downside to all of this, alas, is that on deeper levels, we learn that Amália simply wasn't that intriguing as a person. Her career was lofty, and she certainly had ambition, but there was no apparent struggle in her attempt to reach the top. She was an immediate success story. This gives the documentary a routine structure, with little surprise and creativity, undermining the product as a whole. I won't argue that Rodrigues was a great talent during her lifetime, but I find it odd that the singer described herself as a woman in constant sadness, even though there were no emotional scars to justify it.
"The Art Of Amália," in any case, is a watchable, spurring documentary, if only for the fact that it wants desperately to seek out uninformed viewers and expose them to an artist unmatched in international acclaim. It could have been so much more in the process, though.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Documentary (US); 2000; Not Rated; 90 Minutes
A documentary circling the life of Portuguese singer Amália Rodriguez; Narrated by John Ventimiglia and introduced by David Byrne
Produced by Manuel Falcao; Directed by Bruno de Almeida; Screenwritten by Bruno de Almeida and Frank Coelho