With his new film about Diego Maradona, the documentary-maker has completed a trilogy about celebrity – and, dead or alive, their stories are just as devastating, writes Mike Higgins.

There is an eerie sequence in Asif Kapadia’s new feature documentary about Diego Maradona when the footballer appears to realise that his reign as the greatest player in the world is at its end. It’s 1990, at the Christmas party of Napoli, the football club that Maradona bewitched with his sublime physical skills, galvanised with his street-fighter charisma and inspired to the unprecedented glory of two Serie A league titles and a Uefa Cup. And yet there he is, withdrawn, his expression numb, his eyes fixed on some distant point beyond the festivities around him. From here, the film suggests, there is no return, only a bitter decline into exile and tabloid infamy.

It is the kind of electrifying moment that has become familiar in what Kapadia sees as his trilogy of documentaries examining “child geniuses and fame”: Senna (2010), Amy (2015) and now Diego Maradona. A telling piece of found footage that apparently illustrates better than any former friend, lover or impeccably informed commentator the point at which the fate of Kapadia’s subject is sealed, despite all their talent, fame and riches.

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In the case of the driven and dashing Brazilian Formula 1 triple world champion Ayrton Senna, it was the shot of him in his car, on the grid of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, pensive, but intent on racing. It was just one day after another driver had died on the same circuit – and where Senna was to die a few minutes later. With Amy Winehouse, perhaps the most outrageously talented British pop star of this century, it was the scene, filmed by an audience member, in which she staggered on to the stage of a festival that she never wanted to attend, too intoxicated to stand, let alone sing, shortly before her death.  

These scenes exemplify Kapadia’s signature approach to documentary filmmaking: relegate the talking heads to the narration, pack the screen with evocative, painstakingly researched, often unseen archive footage and edit for maximum cinematic impact: “Anyone could have done it,” Kapadia tells BBC Culture, “but no one did.”

Senna and Amy won Kapadia and his team (producer James Gay-Rees, editor Chris King and composer Antonio Pinto) a Bafta and an Oscar, took over $34m (£27m) in world box office combined and transformed the way that biographical documentaries were perceived. It’s amazing to think that Kapadia took on Senna as a jobbing director with no background in documentaries; its success and that of Amy “changed my life”, he says.

Lives full of drama and chaos

In the figure of the Argentinian footballer, Kapadia had a fitting subject to conclude his trilogy. Here was a life “full of [the] drama and chaos you need for a film,” he says: a man whose greatest goal and most notorious skulduggery, the so-called Hand of God, both occurred in one game (Argentina’s World Cup quarter-final triumph against England in 1986). Also, elements of that drama and chaos were strikingly familiar from his previous documentaries. “[He is] a Latin American hero who made his country proud,” Kapadia says. “But also with lots of issues with himself, his family, who covers it up with addiction.”

If you die, you don’t have to deal with your mistakes. Maradona got old – Asif Kapadia

The big difference? Unlike Senna and Winehouse, Maradona is very much alive if not exactly kicking. Last year, during production of the documentary, the 58-year-old made headlines around the world during the World Cup in Russia after he had to be restrained in his seat, apparently the worse for wear, while watching the Argentina-Nigeria game. It was a painful scene for those who recall him in his halcyon days. Kapadia agrees Maradona’s behaviour was “quite sad”. But the widespread coverage did reassure him of our enduring fascination for the man while illustrating one of the unavoidable downsides of being a surviving genius. “If you die you don’t have to deal with your mistakes,” says Kapadia. “Maradona got old and made a lot of mistakes – getting old is complex and messy.”

But how best to tell Maradona’s sprawling, ongoing tale of wild, lurid extremes? The breathtaking talent, the drive that got him out of a deprived neighbourhood of Buenos Aires at 15, the ability to dazzle and inspire others at the game’s highest level, provoking adoration the world over. But also the on-field petulance and cheating, the cocaine addiction, the illegitimate children, the mafia connections: all made him, on occasion, the whipping boy of world football. Maradona’s story was of an order more complicated than Senna’s and Winehouse’s tragically abbreviated lives. At the suggestion of his producer Gay-Rees, Kapadia focused largely on just seven years, Maradona’s time at Napoli, from 1984 to 1991.

A vicious cycle

As Kapadia sees it, Maradona’s career, which saw him play for some of the most prestigious clubs in Argentinian and European football, kept repeating the same cycle. “Wherever he goes, everyone says he's the best in the world, he does something great, it all goes a bit wrong, he refuses to train, they get annoyed with him, he leaves, his career’s over,” says Kapadia. “It's the same story everywhere Maradona went – but the biggest, most intense cycle is Naples, the place he stayed the longest once he left home. He achieves the greatest things there, and his failure was as nasty.”

The bald facts of the cup and league success that Maradona brought Napoli barely tell the mind-bending story of his relationship with the city. The broke, perennially under-achieving club had bought the world’s most expensive player. The film captures the frenzy that greeted his formal arrival at the club, fans and press a baying mob around a terrified-looking 24 year old. “[Clubs] try to recreate that [kind of reception] now,” says Kapadia, “but that was genuine, and it wasn’t really the done thing in those days.”

If you  speak ill of Maradona, you criticise God, was one, not uncommon,  judgement by a fan

But, as the 85,000 fans who packed out the Sao Paolo stadium just to see him wave hello from the centre circle made very clear, the deal was worth it – Maradona was going to bring glory to the club, restore honour to the fallen city and in the process give a bloody nose to those snotty rich clubs far to the north, Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, whose supporters would taunt their Napoli counterparts with insults such as ‘Cholerati!’ (the cholera-ridden). Incredibly that is precisely what Maradona did: 5ft 5in of dazzling, pugnacious manifest destiny.

On the pitch, as the film makes thrillingly clear, he adapted his game to deal with the dirty tricks and flying studs of the opposing teams aimed at him, employing a personal trainer the better to stay on his feet. Off the pitch, as the results went Napoli’s way, he revelled in the deification bestowed on him by the ecstatic Neapolitans. Maradona was instantly written into the city’s folklore, his cherubic face and unruly dark hair popping up even in religious street-art iconography. “If you  speak ill of Maradona, you criticise God,” was one, not uncommon  judgement by a fan. Winning the World Cup as Argentina’s captain had an air of golden inevitability. 

How Naples destroyed Maradona

Maradona was toasted everywhere he went in Napoli: the restaurants, the piazza, the nightclubs where often he would party from Sunday evening after the game until Thursday morning when he’d finally pull on his tracksuit for training. Yet he was also public property, pawed at by his endless fans and increasingly beholden to the Camorra underworld figures who kept him supplied with cocaine and, it’s alleged, women. The seamy whirl of this existence is brought home in the film, most strikingly by the day-to-day footage commissioned by Maradona’s first agent, 500 hours of which Kapadia’s team were able to track down, featuring the star flirting, dancing, and carousing, in fur coats as shaggy as his hair. Naples, the world, and now we, three decades later, cannot take our eyes off him. Maradona was a superstar unlike any other.

Naples is his co-star in the film. In the 1980s it was a wild metropolis of huge passion and a chip on its shoulder. As Kapadia depicts it, the city was in certain ways his psyche writ large. It was his first adult home since leaving Argentina: “He was really young, and the city became his greatest lover and his greatest rival,” says Kapadia. It was a place that, as well as encouraging his greatest professional success, gave licence to his worst excesses. According to Fernando Signorini, his personal trainer, in the film, before there was Diego, the charming, tough kid defying his low beginnings; but now there was also Maradona the preening, truculent diva. 

When I arrived in Naples, I was welcomed by 85,000 people. When I left I was all alone. I left quietly - Maradona

As the years passed, his body was failing him, he was keeping increasingly shady company, and in addition to the birth of the first of his two daughters with his then wife, there were the lingering rumours of him fathering an illegitimate son in Naples. And then came Italia 90. With awful inevitability, the semi-final pitched Italy against Argentina at Napoli’s Sao Paolo stadium. Maradona appealed to the Neapolitans to support him rather than their country. In the penalty shoot-out  he scored what turned out to be the decisive goal, denying Italy their chance of a World Cup triumph on home soil. It was a betrayal, contends the film, that finally broke Maradona’s increasingly strained relationship with city and club. By 1991 he was gone, addicted to cocaine, mired in a Camorra scandal of drugs, call girls and big money, and banned from the game for 15 months for failing a drugs test. As Maradona himself comments in the film: “When I arrived in Naples, I was welcomed by 85,000 people. When I left I was all alone. I left quietly.”

Though he played for Argentina at the World Cup in 1994, he tested positive for ephedrine and was sent home. Thereafter he largely coached and managed, while appearing in tabloid stories about his ballooning weight, bizarre shootings and his friendships with controversial figures such as Fidel Castro. He is currently manager of Mexican second-division club Dorados. “You realise he’s still that kid,” says Kapadia. “He hasn’t matured, and he won’t.”

Media v Celebrity

Kapadia is a careful observer of the way the media chews through celebrities. He points out that the rise of Amy Winehouse coincided with a high-stakes shift of the British tabloid media, fatefully so – Winehouse died in 2011, after several years of relentlessly negative coverage. “She was the person caught up in the moment when tabloids went digital: ‘We need photos on our website, what sells? Awful pictures of famous girls’,” says Kapadia. Social media sites, too, were in their first flush. “The early footage [in the film Amy] is shot on Hi8 and by the end it’s mobile phone footage. The concept of filming her looking a mess and putting it on social media starts [then]. She's on the cusp of those changes in technology. Amy [became] easy to make fun of, easy to laugh at.”

With Amy Winehouse [most people] thought they knew the story – she’s a junkie, she deserved it. I wanted to turn the mirror on the audience - Asif Kapadia

In that sense, Kapadia is open about his intent with his trilogy; these are not primarily journalistic films. Instead, they are, he says, helping to preserve the legacy of his astoundingly gifted subjects. “Senna is an amazing action hero, really driving those cars at 200mph. He fought for safety, against corruption; he was also on an amazing spiritual journey… but he wasn’t particularly loved [in Britain]” says Kapadia. “With Amy [most people] thought they knew the story – she’s a junkie, she deserved it. I wanted to turn the mirror on the audience,” he says. “I wanted to show how brilliant she was, and her songwriting. Amy was a Bollywood musical for me.” Similarly, insists Kapadia, when his Maradona project was announced some of the public reaction was derisory – but he wanted people to remember the footballer that was.

The films are also very much cinema projects, says Kapadia. He withdrew from discussions to make the Maradona project as a long-form TV series. “This might be the last time I make a film, I don't know what's going to happen to the independent film industry,” he says, adding “I’m a bad TV viewer, checking my emails, falling asleep. I don’t want to be asked to invest 20 hours before something gets good.”

What does Maradona himself think of the film? Though his ex-wife, children and other contributors have seen the film, the man himself hasn’t, apparently, even though, after much cajoling, he agreed to be interviewed for it at his home in Dubai. “I asked him about his relationships, the handball [against England], the drugs, the children, the underworld,” says Kapadia.

All my films are about a sense of belonging and whether you feel loved - Asif Kapadia

“He’s 58 now, twice the age he was when he arrived in Naples,” reflects Kapadia on their meeting. “He’s a very different guy, he’s been through so much physically.” Though there were flashes of the old charisma, the process recalled that of Senna and Amy: “I’m making a film about a person who’s not around [any more].”

During production, Maradona finally acknowledged paternity of an illegitimate son, Diego Jr,  born in 1987. “When we started I had no interest in his private life,” says Kapadia. “At the midpoint, I thought, it’s all about family. In fact, all [my documentary] films are about a sense of belonging and whether you feel loved.

“Amy wanted someone to love and someone to love her unconditionally – she never found that,” says Kapadia. “With Senna, I always wondered what would have stopped him driving that day [the day after Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal crash]. [My view] is if he’d had a kid he might not have driven. I think that changes you.”

This thought prompts a final reflection on Maradona from Kapadia – but for his children, he suggests, he might not be here at all: “I do think the kids somehow kept bringing him back from the brink.”

Diego Maradona is released in the UK on Friday and will premiere on HBO in the US on 24 September after a limited theatrical run.

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