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.

Directed by:
Bruno de Almeida

Amália Rodrigues
John Ventimiglia
Joaquim de Almeida

Written by:
Frank Coelho
Vítor Pavão dos Santos





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