Opens: October 24
Duration: 114 minutes
In the penultimate scene of his new documentary Pavarotti: Genius is Forever director Ron Howard cuts to the final act of Puccini’s Tosca. Pavarotti is performing one of his signature roles, Cavaradossi, a role he has sung 58 times in his career. With the extraction of a phrase: “Never have I loved life so much,” Howard reveals the quintessence of his portrait of Luciano Pavarotti: one of the greatest tenors of our time, a man insatiable for life, a hedonist who lived through his heart, an iconoclast who lived for opera but outside its rules, a father and husband who was loved to his final day.
Through some eyes, Pavarotti lived life on a pedestal. Twelve years after his death in his resting place, Howard memorialises him there.
Howard’s documentary is a reverential celebration of a naturally gifted singer, who as the son of a baker from Modena commanded international opera stages with his high C’s, would sell over 100 million records, brought opera to stadiums with audiences of billions and shifted the needle of his art with The Three Tenors and his outside-the-opera box partnerships with Bono and Mariah Carey.
Written by the prolific Mark Monroe, Howard narrates the tenor’s life in the style of homemade scrapbook. The pages of Howard’s 114-minute montage are turned by second-hand, grainy low-grade home movies with archival photos and performance footage. We glance at a snapshot and the lights of memory and nostalgia flicker.
A cautiously curated set of talking head interviews with artists from Plácido Domingo to Bono, some weightless moments with industry executives and never-before-heard conversations with his family and his second wife Nicoletta Mantovani form a quorum of echoing opinions that give the documentary’s structure a diffuse feeling.
Noticeably, we are more aware of the absent voices in this panoply. Pavarotti performed at The Metropolitan Opera 375 times, yet its long serving General Manager Peter Gelb is missing.
There is nothing tricky or sensationalist in Howard’s chronicle. The movie glosses the surface in a metronomic, chronological time line. It is remarkably static.
If there are indiscretions and polemics, Howard simply intimates them and walks away. There was no doubt an affair with the young Juilliard graduate turned manager soprano Madelyn Renée. Howard asks us to look the other way. And then there is certainly a story behind the story of Howard’s only Machiavellian character, Pavarotti’s longtime manager Herbert Breslin. Howard’s narrative does not challenge any assumptions.
This is a documentary that adulates through omission.
Other subtle messages hint at the snarky and conservative world of opera. Interviews with the Washington Post’s classical music critic Anne Midgette reflect a view that Pavarotti sold his career to the devil through his forays into popular culture. Howard’s retort is clear. Pavarotti lived to his own rules. He was an opportunist and a thrill seeker who was as comfortable cooking pasta on a talk show with Phil Donahue as he was in Verona. Did he really need to sing another Pagliacci? No.
Many would consider Howard’s documentary disposable – a lost opportunity, a retelling of the facts of a life many would already know from reading the news. It is a controversy free zone. Tell us about the time Convent Garden and Lyric Opera of Chicago considered Pavarotti a persona non grata? The incident of the lip-synching? Did he cancel rehearsals and performances at the end of his career? Yes. Did he have affairs? Yes. Did he donate millions of dollars to charities? Yes. These are the contradictions of the man, and everyman.
Howard is convinced that Pavarotti’s voice will tell his story. In many ways he is right. When we hear Pavarotti sing in the movie, there is nothing else that can compete for the attention.
Howard’s documentary has all the eternal optimism of a musical comedy. The sugary messages reflect its director – an opera novice – swooning at the art form with rose-coloured glasses. Life is a song to be lived. Pavarotti died in love and surrounded by love. He lived a life in song without losing his joy for life. As the British impresario Harvey Goldsmith says in the film, “Pavarotti made friends with everyone.” Ah, and he used that voice to do it his way.