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‘Pavarotti’ Review: Doc on Famed Tenor Hits Most of the Right Notes

Portrait of one of the most famous opera singers ever is delightful, if far from definitive

Luciano Pavarotti suits up in a scene from the documentary 'Pavarotti.'

Teatro alla Scala/CBS Films

There was the 1,000 watt smile, the sort of giant grin that could light up a room, or an auditorium, or the Metropolitan Opera House. There was the bulky physique, which made an already larger-than-life figure that much larger, yet somehow not intimidating; if anything, it helped turn him into the Teddy Bear of Tosca. There was the ubiquity of his celebrity during the ’70s and ’80s, when it seemed like you could turn on your TV at any given moment and see him beaming out at you from a talk show, a guest appearance, an AmEx commercial. And there was the voice — good god, that voice. He had the sort of heavenly tenor that could cure atheism, one capable of hitting the high C’s and described as being “so clean you could see the molecules.” His parents called him Luciano. But most of us knew him simply as Pavarotti.

Ron Howard’s documentary on the late, great, opera megastar does a fine job reminding you why the world fell in love with this convivial singer from Modena, Italy, and why you didn’t need to know your Marriage of Figaro from your La fille du régiment to appreciate the passion he brought to the stage. Early pictures of a baby-faced Luci are trotted out and his parentage is discussed (Fernando, his dad, was also blessed with a beautiful voice). Early triumphs are checked off, we see his stock rise and it’s stressed how the pressure of having to be the best often wore heavily on him; if you guessed that this is the point when a clip of Pagliacci‘s sad clown comes into play, we yell “bravo!” in your honor. Both of Pavarotti’s wives are interviewed, as are his daughters, numerous collaborators, at least one lover and two out of the Three Tenors. (The footage of the trio singing in Rome in 1990, by the way, is still capable of making your entire body break out in goosebumps.) Bono shows up, looking inhumanly cool and telling a hilarious story about Pavarotti strong-arming him into writing a song for the big man, because that’s what Bono does.

It’s a doc that hits the majority of the notes it needs to, in other words — all of them except the bum ones. Which means his numerous affairs are discussed, if not necessarily examined for any deeper meaning or insight into who he was. The death of a child is reduced to a single sentence before moving on. A somewhat disastrous late tour, one seemingly fueled by hubris (or perhaps a reaction to the notion that, per one talking head, “the world’s greatest tenor is consorting with rock stars!”), is reduced to a few snippets of disappointed patrons and then a longer clip of the U2 frontman getting angry that people were disappointed. A famous incident of Pavarotti being booed at a 1992 performance of Don Carlo is not even mentioned at all — a curious omission when you consider how humanizing the story is to this superman, how telling it is in regards to his relationship with fame and fandom, and how his absolutely graceful, candid reaction to the audience members expressing their disappointment says volumes about his dedication to the art form.

So while you do not get a hagiography, you don’t necessarily get a full-fledged sense of who this talented, complicated, multifaceted man was either. You do get the pleasure of his company, however, and, in the doc’s best moment, a sense of how one emotional interpretation of an aria from Tosca feels like he’s channeling a whole life’s worth of joy and pain into those notes. The choice is whether those elements make up for the fact that Pavarotti is not the definitive portrait of Luciano so much as a decent-enough recital of greatest hits and pivotal life moments. For some, the chance to hear the divine sound of that voice and see that smiling mug once again will be worth it. For others, it will simply feel like song half sung.

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