The poster for Ron Howard's new documentary has the tag: "The Voice. The Man. The Drama. The Legend." and in essence that's the order in which the director tells this story.
Constructed using archival footage and contemporary interviews with Pavarotti’s family, peers, business associates and mistresses, the documentary sketches the life of the Italian tenor, who grew up in the shadow of World War II to a father who was a baker and also a singer. Quickly becoming an international sensation, Pavarotti earns rave reviews for his performances in classic operas such as La Bohème and Tosca. But despite the love of his wife and three daughters — to say nothing of the world’s approbation — he occasionally dabbles in affairs and starts to lose his creative drive.
Ron Howard’s last documentary, 2016's "The Beatles: Eight Days A Week", focused on the Fab Four’s touring years and told nothing of their rise or fall. Pavarotti, however,seeks to present the entirety of the singer’s life in a two-hour film. There are obvious compromises and limitations to this approach, but the Oscar-winning director (assisted by editor Paul Crowder and writer Mark Monroe) does a commendable job of paring this story down to its most appealing and noteworthy elements.
Pavarotti does a good job of balancing the audience; those unfamiliar with opera and those who are big fans. I enjoyed the fact that Pavarotti’s contemporaries and successors explained precisely what made his voice so remarkable. These discussions of craft, paired with Pavarotti’s own observation that part of the beauty of his vocation was the uncertainty of his instrument, help illuminate the skill and discipline that went into honing what seemed effortless on stage.
The film’s initial stretches prove most satisfying because they delve into opera’s rarefied milieu, and recordings of Pavarotti’s early performances illustrate what a powerful, emotional voice he had, even at a young age. At the same time, Pavarotti lets us hear from his wife Adua Veroni and his daughters, whose warm recollections are complemented by archive interviews with the maestro, a charming, humble figure. Howard recognizes that simply featuring a lot of his magnetic subject will go a long way toward satisfying audiences.
Predictably, Pavarotti was far from a perfect person, however, and the film chronicles his infidelities, spending considerable time interviewing soprano Madelyn Renee and former personal assistant Nicoletta Mantovani, whom he married in 2003. Still, Howard keeps a respectful distance — or, perhaps more accurately, the Pavarotti estate’s involvement necessitated a polite treatment — and so we’re left to wonder about the depth of the betrayal and heartbreak that his affairs caused to those around him.
The anecdotes presented give this film a warmth and charm. I particularly loved the story of the concert in London in torrential rain with their RH Charles and Diana (with a grey John Major sitting next to her). All got thoroughly soaked and this inclusion brought a humanity to the project. Personally, I could have done with less Bono, but that's just me. The story of how the Three Tenors concert came about was intriguing and watching Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti sing together made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up again and my legs went all tingly.
The film succeeds in its primary task, which is to remind viewers of the man’s greatest musical accomplishments. Whether it’s the years as opera’s brightest star or his later participation in the Three Tenors, which helped raise classical music’s popularity globally, Pavarotti was a titanic force who was courted by world leaders and rock artists alike. No question a more nuanced and rigorous exegesis of Pavarotti’s contribution and importance to theatre and popular music would be welcome. But for now, Pavarotti has the tenor of a perfectly acceptable fan-service tribute.