Pavarotti: Ron Howard Doc on Life of Famous Tenor (Ahem) Hits All the Right Notes

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B+

Ron Howard’s biographical documentary on the famous Italian tenor starts, unexpectedly, on a tour of the Amazon jungle in the 1990s. Flautist Andrea Griminelli, who was travelling with the singer and shot the footage on his video camera, describes how Pavarotti and his friends came to a small musical hall, where reportedly, Enrico Caruso had sung a century before.


Pavarotti insisted on doing an impromptu concert and we see him beaming with delight just before he opens his mouth and that majestic voice blossoms out through the small hall, before a handful of startled listeners. It’s a delightful moment, characteristic of Pavarotti’s mission to “bring opera to the people.” The scene sets the tone for this affectionate portrait of one of the few classical performers who is also a household name.

Howard — a director of mainstream Hollywood entertainments (Angels and Demons) and the occasional prestige drama (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) — takes a thoroughly conventional approach to the subject but his experience and resources ensure that the film is well-paced and researched for memorable archival tidbits.

The older footage includes photographs from the singer’s baker father with his choral society. There’s a kind of improbably intimate moment when Pavarotti, delivering a Julliard master class, first lays eyes on Madelyn Renee, when he offers a critique of her student performance. She describes how she subsequently became his assistant, co-performer, and extra-marital romantic partner until, at 30, she broke it off.

It seems that Luciano was surrounded by doting women from the time he was born in 1935, near the northern town of Modena, Italy. His first influences were his father, Fernando, who Pavarotti said had a better voice than him but suffered from performance jitters. (Though far from our image of a tortured artist, Pavarotti also suffered from stage fright and often said, as he walked onstage, “I go to die.”) Luciano first worked as an elementary school teacher before his mother, as he says, “made me do what I wanted” and sent him to music school.

Six years after he began seriously studying in 1955, he won a singing contest and started to be noticed nationally. His big break came two years later, when he was called in to replace his ailing idol, Giuseppe Di Stefano, in a performance of La Boheme at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Various singers and conductors offer helpful shop talk about technique, especially Plácido Domingo, who explains how the operatic tenor voice, carrying a full chest tone to a high register, is a “constructed” rather than a natural voice. We get a backgrounder on the mystique of the tenor “high C,” an octave above the piano’s middle-C at a pitch, says conductor Zubin Mehta, “which makes your ears vibrate.” Pavarotti was promoted as “King of the High Cs,” especially in the showcase aria, “Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, which concludes with nine high Cs in a row.

Pavarotti’s transition from opera to pop celebrity can largely be credited to his abrasive American manager Herbert Breslin, who put the singer to work playing theatres and auditoriums in small-town America, where he and his accompanist John Wustman lived in hotels, gorging on the buffet bars (though as he became more successful, Pavarotti travelled with five suitcases of Italian-made pasta and other ingredients). Soon, he graduated to arena bookings and appearances on mainstream American TV shows, where his ingratiating warmth and humour made him a favourite. A key moment came in 1984: British promoter Harvey Goldsmith booked Pavarotti into Earls Court after a 10-night Bruce Springsteen series of shows fell through. The Big P, as his celebrated singing partner Joan Sutherland called him, sold out the gig.

Howard gives only slight — and mostly light-hearted — attention to Pavarotti’s weight problems which, in later years, hampered his ability to perform for long stretches without sitting down. But his condition brings to mind Kenneth Tynan’s crack about late-career Orson Welles, that he grew fat by spreading himself thin. Pavarotti’s operatic super-group The Three Tenors, with Spaniards Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, had worldwide tours and produced the best-selling classical music records of all time.

Pavarotti’s constant charity events with friends like Princess Diana and his annual rock concerts with rock and roll stars weren’t always well-received by traditional opera fans. (The critical take on Pavarotti’s musical rise and decline is ably supplied by Washington Post critic Ann Midgette.) In a sense, The Three Tenors scenes come across as entertaining opera kits, and easier to appreciate than Bono’s longwinded account of Pavarotti’s collaboration on the song “Miss Sarajevo,” a queasy mash-up of pop crooning, operatic belting, and war footage that does not hold up well.

While not exactly warts and all, the documentary doesn’t gloss over Pavarotti’s constant need for attention. His public image was that of a loving family man, though his wife and early manager, Adua Veroni — a spirited and savvy partner — recognized his need for pampering. (“If he had asked for chicken’s milk, they would have probably milked a chicken.”) We also hear from his three vivacious daughters, Lorenza, Cristina and Giuliana, about growing up with a famous but playful father.

There was a seismic reaction by ordinary Italians in 1993, when the 58-year-old singer left his wife of 34 years for a new woman, Nicoletta Mantovani, a biology grad student less than half his age. After a period of estrangement, he was reconciled with his daughters when his first grandchild was born. Later, when Pavarotti was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that ended his life, women from various times in his life visited his bedside. Howard’s portrait of Pavarotti is more a valentine than evaluation of his achievement and conduct, but this seems about right. Lots of people lead messy lives but few leave such an artistic mark and ride so high.

The film ends with the conclusion of a performance, the camera staring up from below, the singer’s head filling the screen. The music plays for a few bars longer after Pavarotti finishes, his face still fixed in concentration. As the audience erupts in applause, there’s the hair-raising impression that the singer’s spirit has suddenly re-entered his body, as he breaks into a smile of delight.

Pavarotti. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Mark Monroe. With Plácido Domingo, Andrea Griminelli, Nicolette Mantovani, Zubin Mehta, Madelyn Renee, Bono, José Carreras, Lorenza Pavarotti, Guiliana Pavarotti, Cristina Pavarotti, and Anne Midgette. Opens June 7 in Toronto (Varsity), plus Vancouver and Montreal and throughout the summer in other cities.