Documentary Review: Ron Howard’s adoring portrait of a legend, “Pavarotti”


There’s no mistaking that sound, the crisp tone, “clear as a photograph,” the super-human range and otherworldly musicality that could be no one but Luciano Pavarotti.

Seeing him in concert or in an opera could be, even for a casual fan, a transformative experience. It was if he himself was shocked at the music emanating from his mouth — that little pause after every aria, before the explosion of applause, would catch just a hint of “I can’t believe I just did that, can you?” in his eyes.

Marry that voice to that ever-beaming face, hair and beard dyed Elvis/Reagan black, a beaming, huggable Italian teddy bear, and you had a singular star, a giant among mere mortals who loved freely, embraced warmly, laughed with ease and lit up a dressing room, a concert hall, a stadium or TV show — so many TV shows.

Ron Howard’s documentary “Pavarotti” is a celebration of a life lived to its fullest, a man who loved singing and generously passed on what he learned and even founded schools and competitions to further that aim, a superstar who spent a good portion of his latter career giving himself and a chunk of his fortune away, and a man who loved his family — and other women — as much as he loved pasta, a guy who almost always looked like he was having the time of his life.

“Life’s too short,” a record company exec remembers him shrugging off some fresh legal tangle the tenor had gotten himself into. That ethos was contagious.

He knew, he said many times in a thought echoed by those closest to him, that what he had was “a gift from God.” And far be if for him not to appreciate that, to give it to the masses, and to enjoy himself as he did.

I interviewed him once, and saw him in concert a couple of times. But oh, to have been a fly on the wall for his first (already a star) big recital tour, to small U.S. cities in the early 1970s, “The King of the High Cs” enjoying seconds and thirds at buffets with his tour manager at America’s Holiday Inns.

Documentaries are wholly reliant on their subjects for broad appeal, and in the charismatic Luciano, Howard has a winner. The Oscar-honored filmmaker captures the emotional highs that seemed to follow Pavarotti like his very essence, his lack of self-seriousness and gregarious, that liberating sense of play.

Howard knocks this can’t-miss subject right out of the park.

Start with all the singing, the vocal gymnastics of his most demanding roles, the hilarious playfulness he brought to “showing off” while breezing through “O Sole Mio” with other, competitive tenors on stage with him.

As Luciano’s first wife, Adua, jokes (in Italian, with English subtitles), “Who would not fall in love with the voice of Pavarotti?”

Drawing on decades of Pavarotti documentaries and interviews, weaving in rare footage of him starting out, the son of a baker and choral tenor in Modena, Italy, and gathering his two widows, two best-known mistresses, a couple of daughters, concert promoters, critics and peers to tell his story, Howard gives us a Smithsonian-archivable film portrait that’s entertaining, start to finish.

The barrel-chested kid, born before World War II, won competitions, made startling debuts (“La Boheme”) and sang his way to the top in about a dozen years.

The schoolteacher’s life he began in young adulthood only came back to him after he’d made it, when he applied himself and that big, loving personality to master classes — often filmed and preserved for posterity.

And at some point, right around the time he started booking recitals and concert tours — just Luciano, a pianist, a tie and tails and white handkerchief — he transcended opera and became just “Pavarotti.”

Decades later, he topped even that with a one-off night with “Three Tenors,” a simple show of the three great tenors of the age that mushroomed into a supergroup –Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, “the biggest band in the world,” Bono of U2 marvels.

Placido Domingo says “The voice is a very jealous and demanding woman,” and Pavarotti chuckles that “She is the prima dona of my body!”

Phil Donahue tried to resist Luciano’s cooking on TV in the ’70s.

Bono tried to fend off his charm offensive, to get him and U2 to write a song for charity that they could perform at one of his endless “Pavarotti and Friends” benefit concerts. Bono failed.

Spike Lee looks intimidated, for maybe the first and last time in his life, as they unveil a charity school bus Pavarotti has paid for.

He was perpetually homesick, and packed mountains of Italian food and a whole entourage up with him when he traveled.

Amusingly, the Pavarotti depicted here is uncannily like the one feature film he starred in. “Yes, Giorgio” cast him as a beloved, world-famous tenor, a womanizer who (unlike Pavarotti, most of the time) referred to himself in the third person (“Fini”) as he propositioned the ladies.

You are a thirsty plant. Fini can water you.”

Howard cannily begins his film with grainy home video footage of Pavarotti taking a detour from a Brazilian tour date, dragging his posse with him up the Amazon to visit a remote but storied theater where the great Enrico Caruso once sang.

It’s locked, and they track down somebody with the key. There, with no stage crew, no lighting, just his traveling accompanist and an audience that started to gather, walking in from the street, he sings — an egoist, sure, but reverent for the tradition he is carrying on, singing on the same stage as Caruso, and effortlessly unleashing an aria out of sheer, unrehearsed joy.

There’s never been a career like Pavarotti’s.

No singer, no actor, no artist in any field has ever come to embody that field, envelope it, popularize it and make his name as synonymous as the art form itself.

“The King of the High Cs” he was named. “King of Superlatives” is more fitting.

Ron Howard has made a sublime movie that shows just why that was, and what a rare talent and rarer figure was in our midst until 2007.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and a war related image

Cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Adua Veroni, Placido Domingo, Bono, Jose Carreras, Nicoletta Mantovani, Lorenza Pavarotti, Madelyn Renée Monti, Zubin Mehta

Credits: Directed by Ron Howard, script by Mark Monroe and Cassidy Hartmann. A CBS Films release.

Running time: 1:54

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