The new documentary about opera singer Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is like the famous tenor’s public persona: Big, friendly and nonthreatening, an invitation for everyone, regardless of musical tastes, to enjoy the talents of one of the all-time greats.
Titled simply Pavarotti, Howard’s film is generous with Luciano’s music, including substantial excerpts from some of his signature arias, and it’s effective: Even non-opera fans are likely to find themselves swept away by the gorgeous melodies and incredible vocal feats. The man had mad skills.
But the core audience for Pavarotti is the singer’s fans, whether lifelong opera devotees, fans of the Three Tenors phenomenon of the 1990s, or more casual admirers who may know only the melodies of a few key pieces. An opening day audience at Asheville’s Fine Arts Theatre broke into spontaneous applause at the end, and moviegoers who had clearly been moved shared their pleasure afterwards on the sidewalk. This is the Rocketman for Tosca fans.
What it is not is another probing documentary akin to RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, or Ask Dr. Ruth, films that take late 20th century cultural icons and put them into the context of their times, with implicit lessons for the present day. Luciano seems to exist in Pavarotti without significant historical connections, other than his relationships with other celebrities, such as Princess Diana or Bono of U2. The changing nature of the music business, for example, is never explicitly acknowledged.
This is a celebratory biography, the story of a poor child of northern Italy who becomes a superstar through a combination of genuine talent, charisma and the shrewd marketing of a series of savvy managers and promoters (whose own histories are left largely unexplored). That’s not a bad thing: It’s a great story, with lots of memorable moments and remarkable turning points. However much or little you know about the singer, it’s delightful to have the tale summarized with authority.
The archival footage is impressive, and the interviews include almost all the major surviving players — the wife, the daughters, the mistresses, the impresarios, the collaborators. All clearly loved Luciano, despite his casual stomping on the emotions of countless loved ones. Some episodes (recording “Miss Sarajevo” with U2) get more time and attention than they deserve; others are eliminated entirely (Pavarotti’s disastrous film acting venture from the early 1980s, Yes, Giorgio). But the arc of his life is clear and seemingly accurate, and his impact on culture is well illustrated.
Even among the most elite opera stars, such as the other two thirds of the Three Tenors, Pavarotti was unique and momentous on many levels, and his ability to be both incredibly generous and stupifyingly selfish makes for a fascinating subtext to Howard’s film. Pavarotti may be a fans’ film, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and it plays its part perfectly to the tragic end.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre.
(Photo: Courtesy of CBS Films)