There’s usually a very clear dividing line between being an opera star and being a pop idol. That line did not exist for Luciano Pavarotti. The larger-than-life Italian tenor was a titan of the opera stage all over the world, but he also brought his vocal stylings to the masses in a way that very few other classical singers have been able to pull off. Certainly, without Pavarotti, there wouldn’t be a new Alfie Boe album in the shops every Christmas. And then what would you buy for your grandma?
This documentary from Ron Howard – perhaps the safest pair of hands in Hollywood – is a pretty simple proposition. It’s a cradle to the grave telling of the Pavarotti story, from his humble beginnings in Modena, Italy where he was the son of a talented church tenor, who worked as a baker to pay the bills. The story stretches all the way through Pavarotti’s superstardom, whether it’s treading the boards in opera or taking over the world as one of The Three Tenors and running regular charity concerts.
Pavarotti is the sort of movie that the word “hagiography” seems to exist to represent. This doc was made with the full collaboration of the singer’s estate and contains only the faintest of criticisms for Pavarotti. It largely serves simply to express to the world the genius of the man. And that’s understandable. Pavarotti, as depicted in the documentary, is a delight – a humble man who genuinely believed in helping people, as well as entertaining them.
Howard’s film serves as a useful primer for those unfamiliar with Pavarotti’s career and works as a charming trip down memory lane for people who are already fans of the man who is referred to simply as The Maestro. His early work on the stage, where he became known for effortlessly hitting the holy grail ‘High C’ note, really gives a sense of how Pavarotti came to be and we witness his gregarious personality as it boosts his rise to fame on a mainstream level. He believed his voice to be “a gift from God” that he needed to share with as many people as possible.
The array of talking heads is solid, with contributions from Three Tenors cohort Placido Domingo, as well as numerous members of Pavarotti’s family sharing their memories. Perhaps most enjoyable is no-nonsense British rock n roll promoter Harvey Goldsmith, who brought Pavarotti in to replace Bruce Springsteen in a run of concerts and went on to get The Maestro some huge gigs on this side of the Atlantic. The huge void between Goldsmith and the opera world illustrates clearly what made Pavarotti so special. He transcended the divide between “high” and “low” art.
Where the movie suffers is in exploring the man behind the voice. There is some intriguing talk about how crippling Pavarotti’s nerves were, and this certainly helps him convey the myriad emotions that visibly play across his face as we watch him sing. His divorce and remarriage with the much younger Nicoletta Mantovani is discussed, but the movie never really digs into the circumstances around his personal life, focusing instead on a more surface level, Wikipedia-style retelling that is very much a subject-approved, front of house take.
But for all of its slightly wishy-washy storytelling, Pavarotti is an effectively misty-eyed tribute to one of the great icons of music in the 20th century. It knows exactly when to put the focus on the man and when to put it on the music. When the credits begin to roll and Howard plays footage of Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ – his signature aria – it would take a pretty hard heart not to shed a tear at one of the most beautiful, emotionally rich voices ever to grace a stage.
Dir: Ron Howard
Scr: Mark Monroe
Cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Nicoletta Mantovani, Adua Veroni, Harvey Goldsmith, Bono
Prd: Jeanne Elfant Festa, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Michael Rosenberg, Nigel Sinclair
DOP: Axel Baumann, Michael Dwyer, Patrizio Saccò
Music: Ric Markmann, Matter Music, Dan Pinnella, Chris Wagner
Run time: 114 mins
Pavarotti is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.