Pavarotti (review)

Ron Howard’s 2019 documentary is much like Pavarotti the man. It’s for the masses. Is it a great portrait of the man? I’m not an opera fan, but you didn’t have to be to enjoy Pavarotti’s magnificent tenor voice, or his story.

I’ve seen three really fascinating musical documentaries lately. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. David Crosby: Remember My Name. And Pavarotti. Three fascinating lives.

Howard has shifted his filmmaking focus from just high profile studio films to include documentaries and smaller projects. Good for him. I’ll get to those later. A Tom Hanks film, a Star Wars film, an action film, a couple of short films, a documentary or two.  Howard has touched all points on the filmmaking compass, now at Medicate age, he can do what he wants.

Pavarotti opened to mixed reviews, some critics said that it had too much surface gloss and didn’t delve deep enough into the complexities of Pavarotti and his art form. I was satisfied with the depth of the subject matter. I suspected that he was much more of a diva than portrayed in the film and squeezed every dollar from promoters he could. Granted, Pavarotti and his impact on opera are probably worthy of a more focused study. He was the biggest opera star ever, and that’s a big deal.

Pavarotti with Eric Clapton and U2

The film focuses on how Pavarotti broadened his appeal beyond the opera houses and the affluent, to ordinary people. He toured America early in his career, going to smaller cities, spending time between the coasts.   He enjoyed the motel buffets, sampling non-Italian fare like mac and cheese. Beyond his own career, Pavarotti brought the Three Tenors to the world, and suddenly, opera was big money, with legions of new fans.  Still, Pavarotti have a grander vision. His Pavarotti & Friends concerts included popular artists like U2, Lionel Ritchie and Elton John.

Thankfully, there was no mention of his 1982 film, Yes, Giorgio, a major bomb in his only theatrical film.  As popular as Pavarotti was, he skated away from this horrendous film.

Pavarotti’s mainstream success did not sit well some a section of his fans, who thought he sold-out and the cross-over between opera and pop music was ill-advised.  Upon further reading, I found out that Pavarotti often left a trail of destruction with opera houses and those in the music biz.  He cancelled concerts and his business manager could be rather ruthless.  Pavarotti, in his later career, was no different from other aging performers, his range narrowed and critics pounced on what was missing rather than what experience added. As good as artists are, age will eventually take some of that magic.

Every documentary of a notable person faces the same dilemma, how much of their personal life do you interject?  What is fair game? Pavarotti was married for a long time and he was devoted to his three daughters, but he was a man of the world and strayed from his marriage, to have a relationship with a younger woman who he would eventually marry. There was backlash, particularly in Catholic Italy, and the film doesn’t skirt the issue.  Pavarotti is not portrayed as a god, though it is generally favorable to the man. There are interviews with his ex wife and his daughters, as well as his widow, and former business and tour managers.  His relationships with his daughters hint at much more complicated issues that the film explained, but I get it. He spent most of his life on the road and naturally there were fractures. I don’t need to know the details.  When he became a grandfather, that closed some of the fracture, but each daughter and his ex-wife have their issues.

Howard with Nicolette Mantovani, Pavarotti’s widow

One thing I did not know was the extent to Pavarotti’s charitable side.  He organized many concerts to aid those in need, particularly children, and befriended Princess Diana.  Pavarotti pestered Bono to write a song for a collaboration. The result was “Miss Sarajevo,” which protested the war in Bosnia.

In the past decade, Howard has directed Made in America about Jay-Z’s music festival, and The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, about the Beatles touring years. His film, Rebuilding Paradise, about the fire that destroyed the community of Paradise, will be released this year.

If you are not a music critic or an opera purist, you’ll enjoy the life and career of Pavarotti.

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