Pavarotti - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti rehearses for a recital with accompanist Leone Magiera. Photo credit: Decca / Ira Nowinski

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti rehearses for a recital with accompanist Leone Magiera. Photo credit: Decca / Ira Nowinski

Howard hits the right notes and celebrates ‘Pavarotti’

Directed by:  Ron Howard


“Pavarotti” – “Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Luciano Pavarotti, one of the most illustrious opera singers of the 20th century, had a voice that made life more beautiful, but his warm, infectious smile – which he always seem to wear – certainly did as well. 

Hence, director Ron Howard’s documentary “Pavarotti” naturally celebrates the man who transcended the opera-world and shined in the boundaryless pop-culture universe.  Howard - who helmed two recent music docs “Made in America” (2013) and “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” (2016) - takes a conventional filmmaker’s approach to capture Pavarotti’s life in full view on the big screen, but his picture offers so much rich history that it should engage just about any moviegoer, whether or not they appreciate the famous tenor’s bold vocation.

Howard presents many of Luciano’s childhood and young adult (sans his trademark beard) photos from Modena, Italy, while the man lovingly recalls his positive influences and reasons for pursuing the opera, which provided a rock-solid foundation for his soaring career.  Several friends, family members and prominent public figures proactively speak highly of Luciano’s gifts and glowing personality, and most importantly, the emotion raised through his performances.

“Heaven on Earth.”

“He made your ears vibrate.”

In a recent interview, Howard said, “I’m watching him sing these arias, and I’m thinking, ‘This is like Brando.’”

To Howard, the thought of making this documentary was an offer that he couldn’t refuse, and his enthusiasm for the singer absolutely leaps off the screen, especially when he holds seminal Pavarotti on-stage moments and extends them a bit longer than expected for us to marvel and embrace.  This includes the spectacular first performance of the Three Tenors (Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Pavarotti) at the 1990 World Cup in Rome. 

For fans, this joyful spin of Pavarotti’s radiant Rolodex will stir fond memories and also offer new insight, such as his angst before every show, including a certain phrase that he would always utter.

In a potentially-forgotten Pavarotti interview, he wonders out loud if he can actually hit the high note.  Wow!  Throughout the doc, Howard includes several small revelations but - admittedly - no real bombshells.  Other than deeper examinations into a couple very unfortunate chapters with his family – a lesser-known brief episode and another highly-publicized, lengthy one – his life did not muddle in behind-the-scenes emotional toil, at least not more than anyone else. 

Director Tom Volf’s 2018 documentary about opera singer Maria Callas (“Maria by Callas”) uncovers her struggles with lost love and career priorities over starting a family.  Volf, however, had the luxury of Callas leaving a treasure trove of her memoirs and letters behind, and opera singer Joyce DiDonato narrates the film, as if the featured soprano was speaking to us from beyond the grave.  “Maria by Callas” offers the woman’s most intimate, private thoughts, and whether or not Callas suffered more sorrow than Pavarotti is unimportant, but the 2018 documentary connects more deeply.  

Outside of noteworthy family heartache and too many on-screen minutes of Pavarotti’s business manager and chatty concert promoter, “Pavarotti” is a celebration, and Howard strikes the right notes and offers clear reasons for Luciano’s ever-present smile.

(3/4 stars)

Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.