|The Art of Amalia
review by Dan Lybarger, 15 December 2000
To hear a few notes of Amália
Rodrigues’ music is to become instantly hooked. The late
Portuguese singer’s downbeat tunes are curiously exhilarating. As
former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne puts it,
"It was as if she was singing
in these Fado songs about the sadness of the universe, not only
about a personal sadness or a tragedy in her own life or in the
writer's life, but she was expressing the sadness of
existence." Throughout Bruno de Almeida’s new
documentary, The Art of Amália,
we can see the world loves her for it.
The film, which is actually de
Almeida’s fourth about Rodrigues, is a generous sampling of her
performances taken from movie clips, rehearsal footage, concert
videos and even guest spots on American television (one of which
features a very young Eddie Fisher introducing her). The director
also includes testimony from Byrne and other musicians and from
Rodrigues herself. Taken as a whole, the movie establishes her as a
vocalist who is as distinctive as Frank Sinatra, as charismatic as
Madonna and as durable as Ella Fitzgerald.
Just as Bob Dylan did with American
folk music, Rodrigues expanded the boundaries of Portuguese Fado
music and popularized it to the world. In her native tongue,
“Fado” means “sad fate,” and the music has a lonely, gloomy
quality. Rodrigues sings these tunes in a commanding style that,
while emotional, never seems forced or histrionic. Her loud voice
has an astonishing sensitivity. During her interviews, with slight
fluctuations in her voice, she demonstrates how the Spanish and
Portuguese folk tunes diverge.
As accomplished as she was behind a
microphone, singing was not her only gift. Late in her career, she
stared writing her own lyrics. She also had a successful film acting
career. She won awards for her performances, and crowds of people in
France would rush to hear the then-unfamiliar Portuguese singer who
graced an otherwise mediocre film.
That Rodrigues was an important and
immense talent is indisputable. De Almeida emphatically (maybe a bit
too emphatically) states she was great. He tells little about her as
a person or how she prepared to perform. For many reasons, this is
wise. Few things are quite as tiresome as a Behind
the Music-style biography about a troubadour’s rise and fall.
Rodrigues was popular throughout her life (she lived to be 79), so
the “usual” ups-and-downs don’t seem to apply to her. De
Almeida doesn’t try to psychoanalyze Rodrigues or read anything in
her music that isn’t there. A viewer can be grateful that there
are no clichés about substance abuse or tragic love affairs.
That’s not to say de Almeida doesn’t get personal. In the film,
Rodrigues admits that during the 1980’s she moved to New York
intent on killing herself and almost did until she started avidly
watching Fred Astaire movies on tape. She also admits to having
always had a sad streak and feeling the happiest when performing.
Despite these revelations, The Art of Amália leaves a viewer with a nagging curiosity. Few of
her accompanists are interviewed, and little is said about Fado and
other Portuguese music. We are not introduced to any other Fado
players or told how Rodrigues differed from her peers other than
that she was better. The little information that emerges is
intriguing. Rodrigues readily admits composer Alain Oulman
contributed to a large portion of her success, and it’s
interesting to note that once the two started collaborating he never
again wrote music for anyone else.
Even with these slight sins of
omission, The Art of Amália
is a fine primer to her powerful work. Before viewing this
documentary, I was unaware of her music. Now that I have had a
taste, it’s as if the greatest crime De Almeida could have
committed would be to allow her music to be forgotten.
Bruno de Almeida
Joaquim de Almeida
Vítor Pavão dos Santos