There was a time when the average person only had two cultural reference points for opera: the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” and Luciano Pavarotti. The larger-than-life Italian tenor was the undisputed rock star of the classical music world, his beaming smile traveling almost as far as his earthshaking voice.
Ron Howard tackles the highs and lows (mostly highs) of Pavarotti’s life in his engaging documentary “Pavarotti.” Howard has made a film as entertaining and accessible as its subject, making us feel what it would have been like to be in Pavarotti’s company. Even if he was far from perfect in his personal life, he’s an irresistible charmer.
Pavarotti, who died in 2007 at the age of 70 of pancreatic cancer, always saw himself as a “humble peasant,” and his early years reaffirmed that. The son of a Modena baker who originally planned on being a grade-school teacher, Pavarotti doubted he could pursue music full-time. But, of course, he had that voice, at its prime described in the film as “so clear you could see the molecules.” His singing was both technically stunning and intense emotional. For a happy-go-lucky guy, he sure portrayed a lot of doomed lovers who died before the end of the opera.
The black-and-white concert footage of Pavarotti’s early years, when he had smoldering good looks to match that voice, is joyful. “Pavarotti” walks the viewer through triumph after triumph in his career, including his decision to begin performing recitals in cities too small to host a full-scale opera. It was Pavarotti’s way of bringing the opera he loved to the masses. And it brought Pavarotti to the masses as well.
But behind the scenes he was still the same man. The white handkerchief he would hold in his hand while performing seemed like a clever trademark, but in fact was there because he was nervous about what to do with his hands while performing. In interviews with his two wives, three daughters and many assistants, business managers and fellow musicians (including Placido Domingo and Bono), we learn of a warm and generous man whose occasional diva-like behavior was even forgiven.
Interestingly, Howard is more likely to overlook Pavarotti’s professional missteps than his personal ones. He interviews Marilyn Renee, the soprano who became Pavarotti’s protégé and then long-term lover, puncturing his image as a simple family man. And when he remarried a woman 34 years younger than him, Nicolette Mantovani, he became tabloid fodder for the first time.
Howard doesn’t make any mention of “Yes, Giorgio,” Pavarotti’s disastrous attempt to become a movie star, or a notorious incident in 1992 when he was booed by an audience after his voice cracked. Regarding his late-career pivot towards working with pop stars like Bono and Sting, which caused grumblings among his opera faithful, the film takes pain to point out how much those concerts raised for charity. That makes the grumblers come off as pretty churlish.
Howard’s documentary isn’t a whitewash, but it is a celebration of Pavarotti as an artist first, lingering on stunning performances by the tenor in his prime. There’s an extended scene of the Three Tenors performing in Rome where the singers themselves seems taken aback by the force of their performance. “Pavarotti” shows us why he was such a cultural force, and why nobody has filled the void he left behind.