A documentary by Ron Howard. In English and Italian, with English subtitles. Rated PG
Luciano Pavarotti’s reputation is still recovering from a somewhat sad final stage, in which diminished powers met a cartoonishly exaggerated figure who tried to do too much in too many (literal) arenas. This exhilarating two-hour portrait does him a genuine service by putting that brief period, which ended with his 2007 death, back in the context of a creative life lived long and well.
Brought to you by director Ron Howard and the same team that made The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, the new doc covers a subject who toured for almost five decades, as opposed to the Beatles’ five years on the road. Howard spends a small chunk of time on the singer’s wartime childhood in Modena, Italy, in which his baker father, an amateur tenor, inspired him. It skips his desire to be a pro footballer and his admiration of Mario Lanza pictures—something that resurfaced in Yes, Giorgio, his disastrous single stab at movie stardom, also unmentioned here.
Pavarotti does describe the long climb onto the world stage and some of the technical work that went into making him a formidable tenor. The cheesy sobriquet King of the High Cs is explained by contemporaries like Plácido Domingo and José Carreras—who would eventually join him in the globe-beating Three Tenors—as derived from his rare mastery of a vibrational trill that conveys transcendence of earthly restraints.
There’s also the personal stuff, including his departure from a long-suffering wife and three adoring daughters (all interviewed) after affairs with much younger female assistants. Several veterans mention that “Luciano hated to be alone,” and the ceaseless travelling doubtless reinforced some of the childlike needs that were part of his huge-teddy-bear personality.
If he eventually traded the world of Italian opera (a virtual redundancy, in this context) for more slapdash entertainments with Elton John, U2, and Céline Dion, the film makes the case that these latter-day mega-events allowed Pavarotti to raise millions of dollars for worthy causes and provided places to let his charisma shine at an age when opera fans would mostly see a tired old man struggling through yet another rendition of “Nessun Dorma”.