'Pavarotti': Film Review

CBS Films
A fulsome tribute to the King of the High C's.

Ron Howard delivers a documentary portrait of the life and career of the titular star Italian tenor.

The quintessential Italian tenor who did more to popularize opera in the latter half of the 20th century than anyone else receives a lavish and celebratory tribute in Pavarotti.

Casting a net deep into the archives and calling on a vast array of the singer's friends, family and colleagues, Ron Howard has taken time out from his dramatic feature work to deliver another likable documentary on a musical titan (after Made in America and The Beatles: Eight Days Days a Week — The Touring Years). The late singer's ingratiating manner and spectacular high C's provide a steady stream of delight that put in the shadows some of his latter-day personal and professional issues. A solid commercial life worldwide will ensue on various platforms.

It's hard not to adore or at least vastly enjoy the expansive figure Luciano Pavarotti cut in the world of the arts. Blessed with a magnetic presence, a jovial bearing, an unmistakably Italian warmth and a vocal instrument second to none, he was the quintessential opera star who lorded over the second half of the 20th century the way Caruso dominated the first. He was the rare classical music figure who broke the barriers of his own discipline to become a celebrity with the general public. As his widow states at the outset, it was always her husband's goal “to bring opera to the people.”

Howard and his team have lots to work with, beginning with an overflowing trove of footage, recordings and archival clips that's been supplemented by fresh interviews with family members and collaborators. This was not a man wanting for friends and his likability floods the film. Twelve years since his death he's bound to make even more new fans thanks to Howard's valentine.

A child during World War II, little Luciano began his singing career in church and big Luciano says here that his father “had a fantastic voice, better than mine,” but nervousness apparently kept him from the the stage; surprisingly, with all the performing he did, the son suffered to some extent from the same problem all his life. Photos reveal him as a great-looking kid and young man, and recognition came quickly, spurred by his London debut in 1963.

A useful discussion is devoted to the all-important ability of tenors to reliably hit a high C. It's pointed out that a man's natural voice is a baritone, not a tenor, so being able to negotiate the upper octaves is a relatively unusual talent that must be cultivated. But as this is where the glories of much of the male Italian opera repertoire resides, when someone with Pavarotti's gifts for the heavenly realms comes along, “It makes your ears vibrate,” as Zubin Mehta puts it — suggesting why Pavarotti soon earned the sobriquet “King of the High C's.”

As smooth and well-appointed as a Rolls-Royce, the film purrs through its subject's rise, including a very productive collaboration with Joan Sutherland in Australia; his fabled association with New York's Metropolitan Opera, where between 1968 and 2004 he starred in 357 full opera performances; and the teaming with his oft-reviled manager Herbert Breslin, who engineered unprecedented celebrity for an opera singer through big arena bookings and appearances on mainstream American TV shows.

The latter brought the singer unparalleled wealth in his field, but in serious circles the stretch into the realm of popular entertainer provoked raised eyebrows at best and scorn at worst. The massive success of The Three Tenors, also including would-be rivals Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, was a phenomenon unprecedented in opera, as was his teaming with the likes of Princess Diana and Bono to raise money for charities and international political causes, particularly for children in war-torn regions like Bosnia and the Middle East (Bono is allotted far too much screen time to pat himself on the back for his seriousness of purpose).

Still, the hagiography of Pavarotti remains largely unthreatened until the arrival of Nicoletta Mantovani leaves the doc no choice. After some agreeably loving remarks from the singer's daughters Lorenza, Cristina and Giuliana and a uniformly positive portrait of his wife Adua Veroni, we begin hearing about how much this lover of life also loved women. But there are no specifics until this lively 23-year-old turns up, whereupon much melodrama ensues involving familial tensions, divorce, a fourth baby who almost dies, a second marriage and eventual pulling together when the autumn of the patriarch fades into winter.

Intelligent, vastly appreciative of its subject and conventional in approach, Pavarotti can scarcely go wrong due to the charisma of its subject, the gorgeous music that wallpapers the entire film and an arc of success arguably unmatched in the opera world. If the film is all but engorged with goodies, one can hardly object that this is in some way inappropriate to it subject.

Production companies: Imagine Entertainment, White Horse Pictures, Polygram Entertainment
Distributor: CBS Films
With: Andrea Griminelli, Nicolette Mantovani, Placido Domingo, Angela Gheorghiu, Carol Vaness, Vittorio Grigolo, Madelyn Renee, Zubin Mehta, Lorenza Pavarotti, Giuliana Pavarotti, Cristina Pavarotti, Anne Midgette, Terri Robson, Eugene Kohn, Joseph Volpe, Harvey Goldsmith, Michael Kuhn, Lang Lang, Jose Carreras, Dickon Stainer, Bono
Director: Ron Howard
Producers: Nigel Sinclair, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Jeanne Elfant Festa
Executive producers: David Blackman, Dickon Stainer, Nicholas Ferrall
Writer: Mark Monroe
Directors of photography: Michael Dwyer, Axel Baumann, Michael Wood, Patrizio Sacco
Editor: Paul Crowder

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes