Pavarotti Review: Ron Howard brushes lightly over the flaws of an opera messiah

Dir: Ron Howard. Featuring: Luciano Pavarotti, Nicoletta Mantovani, Placido Domingo, Angela Gheorghiu, and Carol Vaness. 12A, 114 mins

Luciano Pavarotti, the great opera singer, is on a canoe in the middle of the Amazon. It’s 1995, during the height of his fame, and he’s in the middle of a pilgrimage to a sacred place in the world of classical music: the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, at the very heart of the jungle. When he finally arrives at this magnificent, gilded theatre, he steps out onto the stage and offers a brief performance to those gathered around him. It’s said that, nearly a century ago, the venue also paid host to Enrico Caruso, one of the most celebrated tenors in history, and one of the first major singing talents to be commercially recorded. There’s a twinkle in Pavarotti’s eyes as he sings. He knows the torch has been passed on to him.

This rare footage of the singer, captured by flautist Andrea Griminelli, serves as the opening to Ron Howard’s new documentary, simply named Pavarotti. It also reveals the film’s ambition: to cement the tenor’s place in history as a messiah of opera who helped spread its beauty further than ever before. At the time of his death in 2007, he had sold more than 100m albums. The Three Tenors in Concert – his collaboration with José Carreras and Plácido Domingo – is still the highest-selling classical album of all time. As a director, Howard has always had an interest in sweeping, traditional narrative arcs and it’s been evident in his past work as a music documentarian, specifically in 2016’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week and 2013’s Jay-Z documentary Made in America. He wants to see his subjects as heroes who step up to the plate and, while Pavarotti is unabashedly fawning in tone, there’s also an infectious joy in the approach.

The film offers such a rich array of archival footage, interviews, and candid photography that it’s no struggle to put together a picture of the kind of man Pavarotti was. He thought of his talent as a gift from God and treasured it as you would a great love. At one point, he describes it as the “prima donna of my body”. In life, he was the warm, jovial bon vivant who’d ask his Italian flautist to pack his suitcase full of food when he joined him abroad. Though Pavarotti married twice, he was also lonely for much of his life, finding comfort and companionship in several extramarital affairs. Pavarotti deals with his flaws – his infidelity as well as his reputation for being demanding – with a light brush.

Yet there’s a sense of forgiveness (and closure, too) in the way his family speak of him. Included among the interviewees are his first wife, Adua Veroni, to whom he was married for nearly 40 years, from 1961 to 2000; his three daughters, Cristina, Lorenza, and Giuliana; his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani; and singer Madelyn Renee, who worked as his personal assistant and was in a relationship with him for several years. All of them seem eager to memorialise him, despite the pain he may have caused.

In the end, Pavarotti has only a passing interest in the man’s personal life, and there’s certainly no desire to go off in search of major revelations. This is a straightforward biography, with plenty of rest stops along the way to sit back and enjoy the transportive power of his voice, in which all the grief and longing of the characters he played on stage could be felt in a single note. Born in Modena, Italy, he was the son of an amateur tenor, who worked full-time as a baker and factory worker in order to support his family. Pavarotti always believed his father had the better voice, but he ended up making his professional debut in 1961, playing Rodolfo in La bohème at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia. International fame followed two years later, when he played the same role in London’s Covent Garden, serving as a last-minute replacement for the famed Giuseppe Di Stefano. Then came the all-out Pavarotti obsession, thanks to his trademark routine of effortlessly hitting all nine high Cs in the signature aria of La fille du régiment.

However, his career took a major departure after he hired Herbert Breslin as a manager. Although he was thought of as “one of the most hated people in the opera business”, the man had a nose for business, transforming Pavarotti from a darling of the classical world into a mainstream phenomenon. He sold out New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1984, before touring China in 1986. Then came the Three Tenors, which saw some of the titans of opera – Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras – join forces and, during the early 1990s, become arguably the biggest band in the world. With nowhere else to ascend, Pavarotti turned his attention to charitable work, holding an annual benefit concert in Modena and inviting the most popular artists of the day, including the Spice Girls, Sting, and Jon Bon Jovi. The documentary also includes the story of his relentless pursuit of Bono, during which he repeatedly phoned the U2 singer’s Dublin home until he agreed to write a song for him (1995’s “Miss Sarajevo”). In an interview, Bono calls him “one of the great emotional arm wrestlers”. Although the opera scene didn’t take kindly to Pavarotti consorting with rock stars, the documentary makes clear that he was after something much more than the approval of his peers: he wanted to bring his voice to the world.

Pavarotti is released in UK cinemas on 13 July