Director Ron Howard’s recent interest in documentary filmmaking has created three productions that share a similar musical baseline but are very different in design and texture. “Made In America,” a backstage look at Jay-Z’s music festival, had a raw chaotic nature to it, while “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” took a more intimate approach in looking at the Fab Four.
Howard’s third and latest offering, “Pavarotti,” takes a more traditional approach to storytelling. In a three-act design, Howard shows the life and legend of Luciano Pavarotti, the man dubbed “The People’s Tenor.” Through a standard mix of interviews and archival footage, Howard tells a warm and inviting story of the singer from his humble beginnings to the almost godlike status he achieved in the opera world. The thread that holds the project together is how genius can be both a blessing and a curse.
The way Howard has put the film together, it’s as if Pavarotti had lived a life similar to the tragic characters he sang about with such power and grace. The spiritually unbridled persona Pavarotti showed the world often was a mask to hide the emotional turmoil of his married life and his driving passion to use his fame and fortune to help give the world a voice.
Howard includes all the usual documentary suspects in tracking Pavarotti’s life. Because the film was made with complete cooperation with the family, the material includes new interviews with family and friends mixed together with old footage of Pavarotti chatting about his life and career through various talk-show and news appearances. The biggest thing going in Howard’s favor is when a person is as famous as Pavarotti, there’s no shortage of photos and film footage. These range from intimate family moments to a commercial that has Pavarotti hawking a credit-card company.
Also included are some of Pavarotti’s most noted performances, including moments of his portrayal of Rodolfo in “La Bohème.” These glimpses alone are worth the price of admission.
Howard’s smart enough that he balances those moments with some insights into Pavarotti’s life that show his insecurities and infidelity. It’s not an attempt to knock Pavarotti off his pedestal, but a way to remind the viewer that even those who seem to have superhuman abilities are all rooted in the same reality as the average person. For that, the best thing that can be said is “bravo!”
The small portion of Pavarotti’s performance with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras (the Three Tenors) from their concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 1990 not only highlights Pavarotti’s singing skills but offers some insight into his playful nature. Even if you aren’t an opera fan, seeing the three great talents comes through powerfully on both a musical and emotional level.
Although the film is a beautiful tribute to Pavarotti, the less-inspired approach Howard took to the film plus a slower editing beat (the running time is 114 minutes) compared to his examination of the Beatles makes the project seem like a small step backward. When you have a directing career filled with impressive work such as “Cocoon,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Parenthood,” there is more of an expectation for greatness. That may not seem fair considering the differences between a scripted film and a documentary, but it’s a burden Howard has brought upon himself because of his past success.
The proof he needs to be more aggressive in his documentary style is his Beatles film took home a Grammy for Best Music Film and was nominated for five Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Documentary. That should be enough for Howard to make sure that if he ever finds himself going down the path of the mundane when making his next documentary, he should quickly find a new route.
★★★ “Pavarotti,” a documentary directed by Ron Howard. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and a war-related image. Opens June 14 at multiple theaters.