Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Whenever I see a movie centered on a topic I am largely unfamiliar with, I enter both excited and concerned. Excited because I truly enjoy learning new things, even in areas I generally pay no attention to. Concerned because what if the presentation is inaccessible to newcomers? Pavarotti, a documentary profile of the late opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, is approximately 30% opera and 70% the subject’s personal life. It avoids preaching strictly to the choir by focusing more on the man than the performer. This is a peak behind the curtain at a celebrated artist, not a concert film. There is a lot of performance footage, but the emphasis is always on who he was, as opposed to what he was. He is shown as a lively, hardworking, mischievous, joy-filled man, with a captivating voice and an endearing smile. It is a likable portrait of someone who could be himself even while onstage.
Luciano Pavarotti was a larger-than-life figure, grabbing the attention of the opera world with his incredible vocal skills. The movie consists of interviews with him, his family, fellow opera singers and friends, as well as clips of him at work from as far back as his first professional performance in 1961. They discuss what it was that made him so good at what he did in a way I could mostly understand. I know nothing about notes or pitches, yet I could follow the basic idea. They take us through his career, making stops for important personal moments like new romances or his friendship with Princess Diana. It is a simple approach that works here, keeping things light and conversational.
The strength of Pavarotti (108 minutes without the end credits) is the man himself. His enthusiasm for life is contagious. The pleasure he gets from singing, spending time with friends or talking to fans is consistently apparent. The movie does seem to gloss over some controversy (specifically, the stuff detailing his love life feels lacking) and only brief mention is made of how demanding and frustrating he could be. It does not get super intimate. This is not an exposé. It does, however, get deep enough so a viewer can feel what it was like to go out to dinner with him or perform on stage with him. It is a love letter that merely dips its toes into hagiography, so it mostly comes off as a biography about him instead of a commercial for him.
Though director Ron Howard is a prolific filmmaker, this is only his third feature documentary. While there are a few overly cutesy edits, and maybe two endings too many, he did a good job in assembling the material. The interviewees are well-chosen and the musical performances play just long enough so we get the point, but not so long as to make those sequences about his singing instead of his life. It is an entertaining documentary and Luciano Pavarotti seems to have been a very lovable guy. Ron Howard breaks no new ground with Pavarotti. What he does do is give non-opera loving audiences the chance to discover why “The Maestro” is still so beloved.
3½ out of 5
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Mark Monroe