This is not a question of going too far out on a limb…this is a need to climb to the highest limb and cheer for as loud and long as humanly possible. Bruno de Almeida’s “The Art of Amália,” a celebration of the legendary Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), is one of the year’s best documentaries, bar none.
At a time when documentaries on entertainment industry luminaries have dribbled into the stale, safe, snooze-inducing banality of A&E “Biography” or the less-than-surprising scandal exposes pushed by E! and VH1, “The Art of Amália” presents a passionate, hypnotic celebration which venerates its subject without dripping into the bathos of shameless diva worship. Using a fascinating and peerlessly edited blend of archival footage and recordings, most of which are completely unknown to American audiences, “The Art of Amália” offers an extraordinary tribute to a performer who personified the heart and soul of her nation and transcended eras and borders to create a timeless musical legacy.
Perhaps the true glory of this film is the way in which it presents the story of a woman who most people have never heard about before. For those coming to this subject for the first time, “The Art of Amália” is nothing short of being introduced to a wholly new world–it is impossible not to watch this film and grow rueful for not knowing such magic existed. A woman of dark beauty and artistic versatility, Amália Rodrigues flawlessly interpreted different musical styles and genres but was best known for her interpretation of “Fado,” a uniquely Portuguese expression rich in dramatic lament and raw emotional power. (Fado literally means “destiny.”) Her life story was equally remarkable: born in the poverty of the Lisbon slums (a dismal urban landscape, shown here in disturbing, heartbreaking newsreel footage), her gift for singing emerged during childhood and proved to be her ticket to a better life. Her rise to fame in Portugal was fairly quick and came through an almost endless skein of appearances in nightclub, theatrical and film productions; surprisingly, recording fame only occurred after success was ensured in performing venues. Her star spread through Europe and Latin America, where she was idolized for her commanding personality and remarkable vocal authority. The level of her United States popularity was somewhat limited in comparison, although her concert appearances here enjoyed success and her recordings are still very much available. Americans of a certain age will remember her best known song, “Coimbro” (aka “April in Portugal”), which enjoyed considerable radio airplay in the early 1950s.
Filmmaker Bruno de Almeida was no stranger to the singer when he created “The Art of Amália”– in fact, the film was the fourth Amália-related production he created in 10 years! His 1990 concert film “Amália, Live in New York City” presented an invigorating performance piece with the singer in full-force. The concert film turned out so perfectly that Amália’s record company, Carvalho, engaged de Almeida to create a five-part documentary on her life for broadcast on European television. “Amália, A Strange Way of Life” was produced over a 10-month period, with the filmmaker working with over 150 hours of film and video footage gathered from literally all corners of the world plus an extensive five-day interview with the singer (who plays to the camera with a charming regal presence that invites love without encouraging familiarity).
Then, in the most remarkable act of editing imaginable, the five-hour television documentary was further cut into the new 90-minute “The Art of Amália,” with a New York-based introduction from an enraptured David Byrne. This film had its US premiere last March at a special benefit screening at the United Nations and is having special screenings around the US while it is being reviewed for theatrical distribution. A fourth film on the subject, “Amália-Expo ’98,” was produced for a special screening at the Lisbon World’s Fair two years ago.
Lest anyone fear that Bruno de Almeida has a one-track mind, it should be noted that he is the winner of multiple awards for his 1993 short “The Trick,” including an honor at Cannes, and his dramatic feature film debut “On the Run,” an intriguing caper starring Michæl Imperioli, John Ventimiglia and Drena DeNiro, is set to open this summer.
Film Threat caught up with Bruno de Almeida at his New York office to discuss his unique professional relationship with the legendary Amália Rodrigues and the rich cinematic harvest which resulted.
[ “The Art of Amália” is the fourth film you’ve made about the singer in 10 years. Why did you keep returning to this particular subject, and what were the challenges of keeping your focus fresh and original with each new film? ] ^ Well, I absolutely love Amália Rodrigues and her music, so it wasn’t hard to keep making films about her. It was in fact a great pleasure. Amália is one of the most important artists of our time. I’m very proud to have had the chance to work with her. She is such an original that I keep finding new things to express about her. You could say that I became obsessed with this extraordinary woman. And I still want to make more films on her using footage from the Amália Rodrigues film archives. There’s just extraordinary stuff in there that should come out to the public.
[ How did you come to be the singer’s “private filmmaker”? And what was your relationship like when you weren’t creating films together? ] ^ We became very close friends ever since I made my first film about Amália, which was the concert at Town Hall in New York. She just trusted me a lot and we enjoyed talking and working together. After a while she didn’t want anyone else to film her. She knew I was there for her and that I wouldn’t refuse any invitations by the record company to do more projects about her. So I just sort of became known in her circle as “her private filmmaker.”
[ You’ve filmed Amália Rodrigues live in concert for “Amália, Live in New York City.” From a filmmaker’s perspective, what challenges arose in capturing the essence and vibrancy of this great artist while in performance? And were you inspired by other concert films prior to shooting her appearance? ] ^ I wasn’t really inspired by any other concert films. It’s not a genre I watch that often. I happened to know that Amália Rodrigues was appearing at the Town Hall in 1990, so I asked the record company to let me shoot the concert. It was one of my first directing and producing gigs. I got three cameramen and just went in there, not knowing what to expect.
I had met Amália in the 1970’s back in Lisbon, so I knew her a little bit, but I wasn’t really into Fado music that much. I just knew she was a legend and wanted to document that show. Then, while filming the concert I fell in love with her. The music totally transported me to another place and brought back many childhood memories of growing up in Lisbon. It was a great concert and she was in rare form that night. It became Amália’s first video concert and EMI records released it in Europe. By the way, that film is now being released in the US by Kultur Video. So American audiences will now be able to get it at video stores and on-line at www.kulturvideo.com.
[ Your first documentary, “Amália, A Strange Way of Life” ran five hours. Your new film, “The Art of Amália,” runs 90 minutes. Both films cover the same subject, but at radically different lengths. How was it possible for you to abridge this life story from an epic length to a much more compact running time? ] ^ “Amália, Strange Way of Life” is a television series that’s structured into five one-hour episodes. It was a mega project that took a long time to make. It covers Amália’s life and career and it includes footage from 1920 to 1995. It was broadcast on European television in 1995 and released in Europe as a deluxe video box set. Then, last year, the producers asked me to come back to make an international version with English narration and subtitles. They also wanted it to be shorter in length so that it could be released on one tape or shown theatrically. That became “The Art of Amália” and I guess it’s now the official documentary about Amália Rodrigues.
I had a hard time cutting it down from five hours to 90 minutes, but once I nailed down the structure, it just flew by. I basically had to “let go” of the urge of wanting to hear the full songs. It was a great exercise in clarity and editing — a “just tell the story, dummy” kind of thing. I love this new film because it moves at a great pace and features all her best moments on film. Tragically, Amália passed away on October 6th, 1999, a week before the completion of the film…again the dark destiny of Fado playing with us.
[ “The Art of Amália” incorporates films, photographs, recordings and kinescopes from various parts of the world. What kind of effort went into tracking down and clearing the rights to this far-flung material and what level of restorative work was required to present this material in its best possible state? ] ^ All the material used in “The Art of Amália” was originally found for the series “Amália, Strange Way of Life.” I had a team of six people doing research for one year and they gathered 150 hours of film from all over the world. I was told by the producers and Amália’s managers at the beginning of the project that I “might find two or three hours of film and that’s it.” Well, I knew she had performed all over the world — from Carnegie Hall to the Olympia in Paris. She had also done many films and appeared on television in the 1950’s. So, I just went to work researching everywhere.
I went to cinematheques and even through the personal files of some of her fans. We discovered a lot of rare footage shot in the most bizarre of situations — like when Amália sings on the “Coca Cola Hour” with Eddie Fisher in 1953. That’s a funny story. I knew from Amália’s biographer that she had appeared on that show, which was originally broadcast by NBC in 1953. So, I looked for the footage everywhere. I tried NBC and the Coca Cola Company but no one had the film. Then my chief researcher thought of calling Eddie Fisher himself. We found his number in California, called him up and sure enough, he had the kinescope of the show in his basement.
To make sure we where legit, he requested that Amália call him personally, which she did. They hadn’t talked in years. It was beautiful. After I got all this film footage, I organized the Amália Rodrigues Archives, restored some of the negatives, transferred all of the films to digital format and the archives are now being preserved for prosperity.
[ Amália Rodrigues enjoyed great success in Europe and Latin America throughout her career, but continued mainstream success in the United States eluded her. Did she ever theorize to you why American audiences never shared the same high enthusiasm of their global counterparts? ] ^ She was huge here in US in the 1950’s. The magazine Variety even named her as one of the four best singers in the world. She performed in the United States at least twice a year from 1952 to 1994. However, Fado music, like the Blues or the Flamenco, is not a pop kind of thing. Therefore it had a restricted audience. But in some circles, Amália Rodrigues was very well known. When she appeared at Lincoln Center with the Philharmonic Orquestra or when she performed at Carnegie Hall, her concerts where always sold out. I think she also didn’t necessarily want to pursue an American career although she had endless invitations to appear in Hollywood films in the 50’s and 60’s. Anthony Quinn even developed Garcia Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” especially for her. I think she preferred to tour all over the world and not settle down in the US. At the time, that would have meant staying in Hollywood and doing films, which is what Carmen Miranda did.
Amália was very popular with the world music and classical crowd and she opened the doors to this market for people like Madredeus or Cesaria Evora. In Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and especially in Japan, people adore her and they compare her to voices of the world like Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Oum Koulsoum or Maria Callas. I think Amália Rodrigues was definitely one of last great Divas of the 20th century.
[ “The Art of Amália” opens with an introduction by David Byrne, who is not easily given to appearing in other people’s productions. How did this elusive artist become involved in your film and did he provide any insights regarding the film’s focus and creation? ] ^ David Byrne, like many musicians involved with the world music scene, happens to be a great fan of Amália. I met him last summer at PAO, a Portuguese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. By sheer coincidence, I had been there having dinner with
Amália herself that very night. So, my partner Frank Coelho, the co-writer on “The Art of Amália”, who also happens to own PAO, told David when he walked in that he had “just missed Amália Rodrigues.” David Byrne couldn’t believe it. I don’t even think he knew she was still alive. So, he was kind enough to immediately agree to grant us an interview. I thought it was perfect to have David introduce her and her art to this country’s youngest generation.
[ “The Art of Amália” was first screened here at the United Nations. How did a presentation at this prestigious venue come about and how did the audience respond? ] ^ That was an invitation from the Portuguese ambassador at the UN. And the screening went very well. Of course, the audience included a lot of international ambassadors who all knew of Amália. I did a screening a week after that at the TriBeca Film Center for the film crowd. And that went very well also. I think people are just taken by her magical presence, her beauty and especially by her soulful voice. It crosses borders. It has the unique ability of touching audiences in every corner of the globe.
[ You are also presiding over the theatrical premiere of your first US feature “On the Run.” Your previous features were Portuguese productions. What are the differences in the American style of making films versus the Portuguese approach to cinema? And how do the film audiences differ between the two cultures? ] ^ I live in New York and I produce most of my films here. Even though I have made some films financed by Portuguese companies, I really haven’t shot that much in Portugal. So I wouldn’t know the difference, really, except that they start shooting later in the day over there and take more time with lunch breaks. But these days it’s really the same anywhere in the world. The European audiences, however, are a bit different. They are used to a greater variety of foreign films. They’re more eclectic in their tastes.
[ You have one feature film opening in theaters and another in search of a distribution deal. What’s next for you? ] ^ I’m currently writing my next feature film and it’s set to take place in New York again. I’m also developing a workshop for the Internet with my group of actors (the same group that appears in “On the Run”). We’re going to get together every two weeks and do short DV pieces and edit them on a home computer. Then the films will be shown on a web site on QuickTime video. People will be able to see our work twice a month and drop their comments, suggest stories or email us right to the web site. It’s called the DV workshop and we’re going to be launching the site soon — keep an eye out for it.
[ Suggested web sites about AmÃ¡lia Rodrigues: ]
[ www.arcofilms.com ] ^ Information on Bruno de Almeida’s four films about AmÃ¡lia. Includes clips of all films.
[ www.AmÃ¡lia.com ] ^ Official site produced by AmÃ¡lia’s record company. Includes a lot of music and clips. (in Portuguese)
[ www.amazon.com ] ^ You can buy AmÃ¡lia’s CD’s right on the web. Recommended: “The Art of AmÃ¡lia” (the CD), one of the best compilations of her music.
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