Film Review: Ron Howard’s Crowd-Pleasing ‘Pavarotti’ Documentary

Interview: Ron Howard Talks 'Pavarotti'
We speak to the famed director about his documentary on the late opera sensation.

Luciano Pavarotti’s greatest achievement was bringing opera to the people. The Italian tenor demolished cultural barriers in a way that had never been seen before thanks to his unique talent, boundless charisma and a willingness to collaborate with everyone from U2 to Bryan Adams. Ron Howard’s excellent documentary, which opens in theaters on June 7, has a similar leveling effect. There’s more than enough to entice the opera buff, but the film is also accessible to the complete novice. For example, it kindly breaks down the basics of the genre as well as the staggering technical skill required.

But Pavarotti is more than a beginner’s guide to musical appreciation. It’s also hugely entertaining. In many ways, the documentary is structured like a biopic. Which shouldn’t be too surprising given Howard’s background directing Hollywood blockbuster’s like Apollo 11 and Rush. (Think of it as a real-life Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman). After an intimate introduction to the subject via home movie footage shot by Luciano’s second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, the director takes us back to the start where we learn about the opera great’s humble beginnings and early setbacks.

As Pavarotti’s star begins to rise, the viewer is treated to expertly-curated footage of rare performances and mesmerizing TV interviews. Whether he’s recounting how Dame Joan Sutherland taught him how to breathe or cooking spicy pasta for Phil Donahue, the handkerchief enthusiast charms one interviewer after another. We also get a glimpse of Pavarotti, the family man, and the integral role his first wife, Adua Veroni, played in his career. Which makes the casual introduction of his first mistresses unexpectedly confronting. Yes, the portly tenor was also something of a ladies’ man.

While the forays into Pavarotti’s love life are fascinating, the documentary never descends into sensationalism. (It’s telling that all of the women in his life sing his praises on camera). It’s just an aside to the main story, which is Luciano’s non-elitist approach to opera. Particularly, later in life when he transitioned from opera houses to outdoor festivals and concert halls. Highlights include his rain-soaked 1991 concert in London’s Hyde Park where he serenaded Princess Diana and clips from his Pavarotti & Friends benefit concerts.

In our interview, Howard revealed that he was inspired by Pavarotti’s arias while constructing the film. And in most operas, triumph and tragedy go hand-in-hand. In the documentary’s case, the triumph (the film’s Live Aid or Dodger’s Stadium moment for fans of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman) is the iconic, zeitgeist-grabbing Three Tenors concert alongside Plácido Domingo and José Carreras at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final. The remaining tenors share amusing anecdotes and fond memories, while footage of their legendary rendition of “Nessun Dorma” is still goosebumps-inducing.

As for tragedy, a cancer diagnosis robs Pavarotti of the opportunity of raising his fourth child. Instead of being ghoulish, however, the final days of the gentle giant are shown to be full of love and reconciliation as the many women in his life come to his bedside. Just make sure you have a tissue handy for the final snippet of Mantovani’s home movie footage. Pavarotti is a must-see for all music fans.

Rating: 4/5

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