“PAVAROTTI” — 3 stars — Luciano Pavarotti, Adua Veroni, Placido Domingo, Princess Diana, Bono; PG-13 (brief strong language and a war related image); Broadway; running time: 114 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The most interesting thing about Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti” isn’t so much its celebration of the world’s most famous tenor, but rather the story of how that tenor brought his craft into the cultural mainstream.
“Pavarotti” is the story of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, who rose from humble Italian obscurity to blossom into one of the world’s most celebrated singers.
Howard’s film opens with a rare piece of archival footage that shows an impromptu performance in a remote opera hall deep in Brazil. Handheld camera work betrays the intimacy of the moment, witnessed by only a handful of travelers, yet Pavarotti delivers the same sincere performance he would deliver to a vast stadium audience.
Another piece of footage provides the first bookend for the film, as a home video interview asks how the maestro hopes he will be remembered in 100 years. Pavarotti says he hopes he will be remembered as a singer who “brought opera to the people.” When asked how people should remember Pavarotti the man, he gazes thoughtfully into the distance.
To answer the question, Howard’s documentary rolls backward to begin with Pavarotti’s childhood in Modena, Italy. The singer was born during World War II, and the photos from his childhood hint nothing of his famous girth. But his intense brown eyes are instantly recognizable.
As a young man, Pavarotti learned voice from his father, but it was his mother who encouraged him to pursue singing when he was tempted to give up his passion and return to teaching. We see his upward trajectory as he debuted in “La Boheme” in 1961, then fell in love with his first wife Adua Veroni and had three daughters in under five years.
Adua and those daughters help narrate the early milestones that follow for Pavarotti, including performing in London in 1963, meeting his longtime manager Herbert Breslin, his debut with the Met in 1968 and setting out on tours through remote venues in the American Midwest.
Along the way, archival interviews and asides with fellow performers like Placido Domingo shed light on what made the singer so unique. At one point, we learn the difference between baritones and tenors (apparently it is “unnatural” to sing as a tenor), and how Pavarotti became known as the King of the High C's.
We also get to explore later events in Pavarotti's life, such as his Three Tenors tour in the 1990s and his close friendship with Princess Diana. Although it celebrates the tenor, the documentary doesn't shy away from Pavarotti's imperfections, in particular touching on his marital infidelity. But we also learn about his larger-than-life personality and get plenty of opportunities to hear the singer in action (which alone justifies watching this documentary).
At the same time, Howard’s execution is a little routine — perhaps his idea is to just let the man’s greatness speak for itself? What remains most compelling is how in the midst of its portrait, “Pavarotti” reveals a second narrative as its subject takes opera from a more reserved place in sophisticated culture and breaks boundaries into more mainstream outlets, even collaborating with Bono and his fellow U2 Irish rockers on a song called “Miss Sarajevo” in the 1990s.
In that sense, “Pavarotti” is more than a profile of a singer. It’s also the story of a man who really did bring opera to the people.
Rating explained: “Pavarotti” is rated PG-13 for adult themes and some brief strong language (including two uses of the F-word from Bono).