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I really enjoyed Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s generous new theatrical feature documentary on the big cuddly tenor. Of course, it helps when your subject is so immensely talented, physically striking and charismatic: just seeing Pavarotti (and hearing him) for a couple of hours is entertainment enough. But Howard’s been a highly skilled storyteller for a long time now – he directed Splash in 1984 and Cocoon in 1985, and his resumé since includes A Beautiful Mind, Parenthood, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Backdraft and his finest film, Apollo 13 – and he knows how to flesh out a theme.
In Pavarotti, this means assembling the mass of available material – concerts, contemporaneous interviews, news reports, television specials and appearances, family photos and home movies – into a time-line that is subtly and cleverly arranged into thematic chapters. Without feeling the lanes shift, we move from Pavarotti’s anxieties to Pavarotti’s obsession with (and dependence on) food to Pavarotti’s love life to Pavarotti’s new management. It’s seamlessly and artfully done. Howard supplements the wealth of existing material with wisely chosen new interview subjects, relying most on Pavarotti’s three main lovers (who are all very elegant indeed). He, and they, quickly move past the required praising of the man’s astonishing vocal gifts and onto more personal and intriguing observations.
In the film’s second hour, Pavarotti basically owns a chunk of the 1980s as he becomes a mega pop star. Having lived through it, this section was very evocative and brought back the strange and distinct memory of much of the 1980s being dominated by such a small group of pop culture icons who all seemed to know each other and do projects with each other, often in the aid of charity: Pavarotti, Princess Diana, Bono and U2, Sting, Michael Jackson… Of course there were many others, but the placing of Pavarotti and Diana at the centre of high-end celebrity philanthropic society seems like a valid historical point.
Howard clearly loves his subject and keeps things positive, possibly to the point of hagiographic. But the main thing Pavarotti could be accused of (and his home country’s press certainly did) would be, through his love-life, a betrayal of his Catholicism, and Howard certainly doesn’t hide the love life. Thank goodness. I really enjoyed hearing from each of Pavarotti’s classy lovers about this man they, and the world, clearly adored.