Ron Howard is at a point in his career (and probably has been for some time) where he can essentially take on whatever projects he likes. He’s long since earned the right to both helm massive blockbusters (most recently 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story) and usher pet projects into the world on his own terms. Such seems to be the case with Pavarotti, a documentary recounting the life and work of larger-than-life opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Here, Howard liberally channels his knack for creating an emotional moment with an audience, something typically reserved for third-act miracles in his well-known narrative films (Apollo 13, Backdraft, In the Heart of the Sea), in order to remind us just how influential Pavarotti was not only in opera but across popular culture.
Though populated throughout with interviews with those who knew him best (his daughters, his wives, his concert promoters), the real intimacy of Pavarotti is in the archival footage and home movies chronicling the artist’s earliest days and most human moments. Born in 1935 in northern Italy, Pavarotti grew up singing in the town’s all-male choir with his father, also a tenor; in 1961, he debuted as Rodolfo in a production of Puccini’s La Bohème. A recording of that performance plays over images and news clippings of the occasion, and knowing what we do about the future in store for young Luciano, it feels like witnessing history.
Pavarotti is built similarly to last year’s Maria by Callas, a film that allowed the famed soprano (whose career was winding down as Pavarotti’s began) to recount her fame and art in her own words, in that key moments are underscored (quite literally) by Pavarotti’s most memorable performances. In this way, we’re reminded throughout just what a unique talent the man was; known as the “King of the High Cs,” it’s a revelation all its own to hear him deliver that pure, powerful note. For those of us most familiar with his later career (The Three Tenors, in particular), revisiting his early work is a treat.
That later work gets plenty of screen time as well; Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras are both included in the film, their love for their friend and creative partner quite evident. Howard smartly expands his view of that trio’s phenomenal success to address its larger impact on the business of music production and grand-scale concert events, reminding us what a unique moment in time it was. Before digital music libraries could put all the music we’d ever want in our hands, and before social media could put us at any event anywhere in the world in a click, Pavarotti almost single-handedly revived a classical music industry, selling massive numbers of both records and tickets.
Beloved as he was, the man was no saint, to be sure. His appetite for life—art, music, food, wine, women—was nearly insatiable, and his success made it so he might never run out of access to anything he desired. His first marriage ended when he took up with his “secretary,” a scandalous time that Howard doesn’t shy away from. A man surrounded by businessmen eager to capitalize on his success, the filmmaker doesn’t delve too deeply into drama with long-time manager Herbert Breslin or his late-in-life tax evasion accusations. This omission is forgiven mainly thanks to the time Howard does take to humanize a global superstar. Intimate interviews with his daughters, clearly still missing their father more than a decade after his death, are among the film’s most moving moments.
There is no shortage of interesting, impressive figures to receive the documentary treatment, and certainly anyone of even a minor level of celebrity may get their own. It’s a rare occasion, then, that a filmmaker of Ron Howard’s caliber turns his lens to a megastar like Pavarotti. The end result is a quite fascinating, strikingly personal chronicle of a man made up of much more than his fame.
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