Ron Howard returns to accessible but fluffy music docs with this hagiography of the iconic opera tenor.
If you asked the random person on the street to name an opera singer, any opera singer, chances are they would say “Pavarotti,” if they can name one at all. Luciano Pavarotti broke through to the general public out of the rarified world of the opera. Even though my parents weren’t opera fans, a Three Tenors CD floated around my childhood home growing up. Now, Academy Award winner Ron Howard presents a life’s portrait of the singer in his latest documentary Pavarotti, which follows his 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (he seems to have learned to make his titles briefer over the last three years). In both, at least, Howard hopes to provide accessible, if hardly deep, dives into some of the 20th century’s most iconic musical figures.
The film follows a fairly standard chronological arc, starting with Pavarotti’s childhood in Modena, his rise as an opera star, and finally his superstardom. Howard is definitely playing to a wide audience, as you don’t need to know anything about opera during the discussion of those years, with handy intertitles explaining the plots of the operas Luciano cut his teeth on. The footage is mostly comprised of Pavarotti’s performances and interview, as well as interviews of family, friends, business partners, and other singers.
The tenor’s showmanship and artistry shine throughout Pavarotti, the doc showcasing the man’s abilities with tremendous clarity. Even in recordings, his outstanding talent blows you away. One interviewed singer talks about the challenge of being a tenor — it’s not in the natural male range, it’s very artificial — and what makes Pavarotti so spectacular is his ability to appear like he’s barely doing anything at all. Offstage, his smile and joie de vivre is infectious, and it seems impossible not to like the man. Howard also spends ample time exploring Pavarotti’s philanthropic work, from charity concerts like his Pavarotti & Friends events, to his foundations, and providing music lessons to children in war-torn Bosnia.
Howard’s clearly in love with Pavarotti, and while his doc didn’t have to be a hard-hitting investigation into the man, much of Pavarotti teeters into the realm of hagiography. Very few negative things are said, and even then they are easily dismissed by the interviewees. When the film discusses how many in the opera world scoffed at Pavarotti’s pop collaborations, these criticisms are presented as examples of snobbery. Later, when Pavarotti returns to the Met to roles he can no longer perform like in his youth, Bono rushes to his defense by saying it doesn’t matter if he can’t hit the notes.
Any critique of Pavarotti’s personal life is also muted. There is some talk of him being a bit of a diva, with his first wife commenting that if he asked for “chicken’s milk,” someone would find it for him. But any other talk of difficulty working with him isn’t discussed. For example, no mention is made of Chicago’s Lyric Opera cutting ties with the singer due to him canceling 26 out of 41 performances he had agreed to. Even Pavarotti’s pushiness to get people to agree to projects with him, such as his constantly calling Bono’s housekeeper to have her bug the U2 frontman to write a song to perform with him and ultimately showing up unannounced at U2’s studio, is written off because in the end Bono became good friends with him.
Even in recordings, his outstanding talent blows you away.
Similarly, Pavarotti’s personal failings are brushed over, and in general, the discussion of his personal life feels weak. The daughter’s from Pavarotti’s first marriage, Lorenza, Cristina, and Giuliana, his first wife Adua Veroni, and his second wife Nicoletta Mantovani make up the majority of familial interviewees. There are some touching early moments, such as one of his daughters screaming “PAPA” after the gruesome end to Tosca and taking a sabbatical to care for his sick child. However, the affair that peppered the tabloids late in his life is examined at only a surface level. His daughters talk about the falling out after his divorce and remarriage, and his ex-wife discusses her pain.
But these feelings of betrayal are quickly brushed aside to discuss how they made amends while Pavarotti was dying of pancreatic cancer. Obviously, since Veroni came to his deathbed with offerings of pasta, and said enough nice things about Pavarotti for Howard to use in the documentary, their relationship was repaired. However, it seems disingenuous to quickly address something that caused such a sensation during the mid-1990s.
Pavarotti serves as an excellent paean to the tenor as a performer, documenting his stellar rise to a bona fide celebrity on his amazing talent, as well as his humanitarian work. This is undercut by the meager offerings on his personal life, which does little to enhance the documentary, and sometimes confuses the audience. When Mantovani says Pavarotti told her his prior relationship had ended, the audience wonders if they missed the divorce, since they never talked about them trying to keep their affair a secret. Despite this weakness, the showcase of the tenor’s performances and charisma make it a compelling watch.
Pavarotti belts its way into theaters June 7th.