Of the many hours that must exist of Luciano Pavarotti on-camera talking about singing and himself, director Ron Howard has pinpointed just the right moment to frame the lucid, entertaining documentary portrait Pavarotti (★★★½).
In what appears to be a home movie, an off-camera interviewer asks the singer, late in his life, how he’d like to be remembered. Interpreting the question as a performer, he responds humbly about bringing opera to the people. Pressing further, the person asks Pavarotti how he’d like to be remembered as a man — and before answering, the man pauses. The film pauses with him, taking a deep breath before singing Pavarotti’s story with a fullness and clarity he might have appreciated.
The famously gregarious man from Modena might also have appreciated that his first wife, Adua Veroni, his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, his longtime inamorata, soprano Madelyn Renée, and all three of his adult daughters with Veroni appear on-camera to sing his praises. The truth they tell might sting a little, but even when discussing bitter arguments and separations, the women who loved him still love him, as do millions who knew only his music.
The film keeps that affection intact, by focusing as much on his music as on the biographical details of his life, and by evading discussion of exact timelines for when certain love affairs began, and others ended. But then, no one familiar with Ron Howard’s filmography should come to Pavarotti expecting exposé. Rather, this is a film about all there was to love about Pavarotti. It’s a tribute to how he filled spaced with his large presence, charisma, and that voice.
A gift and a burden, he called his voice, and, in one scene, his nerves are palpable as he enters the stage reciting his usual maxim, “I go to die.” His passionate personality is fully on display in archival footage and news clips, and in the stories told about him by friends and colleagues like Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Angela Gheorghiu, and Bono, who offers astute insight into what made Pavarotti so great a singer.
Howard and editor Paul Crowder, who also cut the director’s award-winning 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years, offer ample performance footage — including from the first Three Tenors concert — to drive home the argument that Pavarotti was the tenor of our age. “Luciano, the one and only,” says Gheorghiu, who also elucidates the specialness of a male voice producing a high “C.”
Opera fans might wish for greater technical detail about Pavarotti’s musicianship, or more critical consideration of his abilities, than what they’ll find here. But few will be disappointed to see and hear a young, clean-shaven Luciano singing Rodolfo in La Bohème, or to bask in the glory of his solo “Nessun Dorma” at the Three Tenors concert.
By the time the film returns to the question of how Pavarotti would like to be remembered, the man’s answer, hopeful and honest, tells us all we need to know.
Pavarotti is rated PG-13, and opens June 7 at AMC Mazza Gallerie, ArcLight Bethesda, and Angelika Film Center Mosaic in Merrifield. Visit www.fandango.com.