Luciano Pavarotti (archive), Bono, Nicoletta Mantovani
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You certainly come away with a sense of Pavarotti’s extraordinary career and presence… impeccable sound recording, mastered at Abbey Road Studios, helps us appreciate the phenomenon of one of the greatest tenors of all time.
On the surface it looks as big a contrast of highbrow and mainstream as you can get – Ron Howard, director of films like Splash, Apollo 13 and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci series, takes on the life story of the world’s most famous opera star, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007 ). Howard may be far from arthouse, deeply bedded in traditional Hollywood structures of filmmaking, but he knows how to tell a story.
“I look for peak moments,” he says in a Masterclass. In Pavarotti, the peak moments are dictated by the highlights of the singer’s actual life and shared with a global public.
And this is where the match of director and subject starts to make sense. Howard’s recent biography on the Beatles and their touring years in Eight Days a Week was a nice precursor to this biopic, as the more we discover about Pavarotti, especially for non-opera types, the more we understand him as one of the great rock stars, selling over 100 million albums and performing in front of 10 million people over the course of his 45 year career.
At the beginning of the film, Pavarotti is asked what he wants to be. He replies ‘I want to be a man who brought opera to the people.’
He achieved that aim with the aid of two promoters who understood his potential for mass appeal; Harvey Goldsmith, who was looking for a replacement act when Bruce Springsteen became unavailable, and formidable record producer Tibor Rudas who handled global pop acts like Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton.
From a 1984 sold out concert at Madison Square Garden, to the incredible 3 Tenors shows with Placido Domingo and Jose Carrera who topped the charts with their recording of ‘Nessus Dorma,’ to the charity concerts with Sting, U2 and many other rock stars, Pavarotti left a massive mark.
On the whole, Ron Howard has done well with a narrative that follows a loose chronology while looping back to images of a childhood in the Italian village of Modena where the singer learned technique and inherited his baker father’s singing gift. Cossetted by an extended family of mostly women, Pavarotti had relationships with devoted women who also acted as secretaries and managers.
His more casual womanising and his reputation for cancelling concerts are glossed over, but Howard allows some flaws to emerge. The singer could be difficult and demanding, he travelled with 28 suitcases, and was a perfectionist and something of a glutton, who described himself as a ‘peasant’. Other details are fascinating, such as his enduring stage fright, and the extraordinary technique that earned him the nickname ‘The King of the high Cs.’
Howard’s choice to feature extensive interviews with Pavarotti’s first wife Adua Veroni and their three daughters and Juilliard student and long-suffering lover Madalyn Renee is a strong frame for the story. The director manages to elicit generous, frank disclosures from Veroni and second wife Nicoletta Mantovani who was 35 years the singer’s junior, causing a huge scandal when he wed her.
Howard manages to capture many sides of the singer through the various quotes from managers, rock stars and other opera singers. There is a nice explanation of what makes a tenor voice so unique and compelling, and Bono’s description of being steam-rolled into writing and performing ‘Miss Sarajevo’ for charity is funny and revealing.
There are occasions when the director’s efforts to speak to a broad audience go beyond obvious, like the hillbilly soundtrack when Pavarotti tours the midwest, or Veroni’s mention of a chicken being illustrated by… a squawking chicken.
But he certainly showcases those ‘peak’ moments, especially his trademark aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 3 Tenors concert on the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
You certainly come away with a sense of Pavarotti’s extraordinary career and presence. Howard’s decision to aim for an impeccable sound recording, mastered at Abbey Road Studios, helps us appreciate the phenomenon of one of the greatest tenors of all time.