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Film Review: Pavarotti

Director:    Ron Howard

Cast:    Luciano Pavarotti, Adua Veroni, Nicoletta Mantovani, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Zubin Mehta, Bono, Angela Gheorghiu, Princess Diana, Madelyn Renée, Harvey Goldsmith

Rating:    M

Running Time:    114

Australian Distributor:      Madman Films


There can be no mistaking the man or the voice. Ron Howard’s newest documentary, Pavarotti, goes back into the past to celebrate the life of The People’s tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

This documentary covers his life from his birth in Modena, Italy, in 1935 to his death in 2007 from pancreatic cancer. Through interviews, archival footage and numerous photos we follow his astounding career which at its peak achieved rock star status, drawing live audiences as large as 500,000 (in Central Park) and additional millions on TV.

Most of this particular footage had never been seen before.  In fact, the film starts out during a trip to Brazil in 1995.  This is when Pavarotti is on a mission to perform at the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil. It was where the great Enrico Caruso once sang, and Pavarotti had a goal to emulate his hero.

This film is not completely an all-archival film. There are the in-person interviews with friends and family. Some do come by way of archival interviews. The film features conversations with Pavarotti’s managers and fellow singers, notably manager Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, rock concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith and American promoter Herb Breslin, who turned the tenor into a rock star. Pavarotti goes deepest with Breslin, who drove hard bargains and created exhausting campaigns that paid off by touring the tenor in regions in America that rarely get to enjoy live opera.

The film consistently puts the tenor’s voice at its centre while creating a portrait of Pavarotti’s life and career. Howard uses an impressive range of material to let Pavarotti speak about his highs and lows in his own voice. 

There are carefully chosen arias with very specific verbiage, the placement of which in the film speaks to what is emotionally happening in Pavarotti’s real life versus a chronology of performances and recordings.

The music and archival footage truly make the film soar, particularly The Three Tenors performance on the eve of the 1990 World Cup Final which captures not only the majesty of Pavarotti’s voice and presence, but his light-hearted humour as we see his engagement among Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and conductor Zubin Mehta. A pure delight. The experience of seeing and hearing them again in this film is moving and exhilarating.

One of the most powerful interviews comes from U2’s Bono.  Bono was like a son to Pavarotti and he speaks very emotionally of the love he has for the great tenor. Providing strong reflection and observation, Bono proves himself to be an articulate, knowledgeable, and honest, elder statesman of music with a unique perspective that adds much to the story, particularly when he speaks of Pavarotti putting his “life” into his performances late in his career. It’s easy to sense that not only was Bono speaking about Pavarotti but about himself as time marches on.

The crossover into working with pop singers and rock musicians came together with Pavarotti’s charity initiatives. His annual Pavarotti and Friends concert in Modena attracted great appeal. He associated with people like Sting, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Zucchero, James Brown, Bryan Adams, Lucio Dalla and many more. The shows raised millions for victims of war and hunger. He became a good friend of another celebrity known for her compassion and concern for children, Princess Diana. And Bono related the story behind the incredible song “Miss Sarajevo” that Pavarotti urged him to write for the besieged people of Sarajevo. The song grabs my emotions each time I hear it.   

One of the fascinating things to learn about celebrities is the impact on their families.  The film happens to make this somewhat of a focus – at least in the final half.  Later on during his life, Pavarotti would meet a younger woman, Nicoletta Mantovani.  There would be photos published in magazines and these would have a devastating effect on his family.  The two would go onto marry and have a daughter, Alice. 

Ron Howard has been able to craft such an intimate character study and make it seem like he actually had unrestricted access to his subject for the duration. It’s hardly surprising that the Pavarotti estate has endorsed the film. 

The film certainly shows why this masterful singer deserved the title “the King of the High Cs.” The singer’s widow said that Pavarotti did indeed manage “to bring opera to the people.”  Opera experts could make a case for Caruso, Gigli and Lanza as the greatest tenor ever, but the melody and purity of Pavarotti’s voice is unmatched and may place him on top. The ending of the film, with Pavarotti singing his worldwide hit Nessun Dorma (from Puccini’s Turandot), is wonderfully spine-tingling.   

Pavarotti seemed to have transcended the perils of celebrity by pure love of his craft, the ambition of being a singer for everyone, and being a generally decent person, with a big heart for family, friends, fellow singers, and fans alike. His passion and fame sets him apart from other opera singers, and Howard’s film is a rewarding celebration of the great man’s life.



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