3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Chances are, if you’re under 40 and have no interest in classical music, you’ve probably never even heard of Luciano Pavarotti. It’s a safe bet many people over 40 also wouldn’t know him had he not produced and participated in a series of annual benefit concerts featuring pop acts (Sting, Elton John, U2, Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi), which raised serious coin for child-aged war survivors.
For those with even just a fleeting, passing knowledge of opera, Pavarotti was Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles all rolled into one overwhelming force of nature. A tenor who ruled over the classical world for close to 40 years, Pavarotti had a divine gift that he respected (and often felt intimidated by), and he lived every day as if it was his last. He was a humble man and giving in a way most celebrities and artists are incapable of; he used his fame to save his fellow man in a manner few of us could ever imagine.
The follow-up to the brilliant “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” “Pavarotti” is director Ron Howard’s third music-based documentary (Jay-Z’s “Made in America” being the first) and it offers solid proof he should ditch live-action features altogether and dedicate the remainder of his career to making documentaries. Those wishing to argue against this theory have yet to see “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “In the Heart of the Sea” or “Inferno” or have chosen to ignore the fact all of them were horrible movies.
The only fault you can find with Howard’s latest effort is that it breaks no new artistic documentary filmmaking ground — which was probably a good idea. The “womb-to-the-tomb,” point A to Z blueprint is one that offers the path of least resistance and one most general audiences will relate to and appreciate. The U.S. probably has one of the lowest percentages of opera and classical music fans per capita in the world, and, sadly, also the lowest per capita viewership of art films.
Howard, his longtime producer/partner Brian Grazer and writer Mark Monroe have made a commercially friendly movie that values the person over the art — and they do so in a decidedly non-artsy, unpretentious way.
Born in the same Northern Italian town where he would die 72 years later, Pavarotti had what would appear to be an ideal childhood. His father was a baker who also sang and wanted his son to be a teacher — which he was, for what seemed like a few hours. Pavarotti’s mom recognized her son’s talents before anyone (including him), and gently pushed him into pursuing a career in which few find success.
Whether it was timing, kismet, pure luck, raw talent or all of the above, Pavarotti’s road to fame was a relatively short trip, and at no point during his long and winding journey did he ever lose sight of his humble origins. He also recognized early on that finding the right business partner was a crucial ingredient to long-term success and, again unlike most artists, he was able to work with three different managers during his career that actually did their jobs without robbing him blind in the process.
While completely lost on a handful of short-sighted critics who’ve already reviewed the film, Howard does not skip over or in any way ignore an event which – at least in his homeland for a brief time – threatened to derail Pavarotti’s life and career. A Catholic living in a primarily Catholic country rooted in entrenched Old World values, Pavarotti began a relationship with a woman who would eventually become his second wife and the mother of his fourth daughter.
For the duration of the movie, Howard includes lengthy interviews with Pavarotti’s first wife Adua (also a lifelong business partner) and his three elder daughters Lorenza, Cristina and Giuliana. And while they never overtly slam his behavior, neither do any of them let him fully off the hook. It is clear all of them still deeply love and revere Pavarotti, and not just because it might look good for the camera.
Pavarotti was different from most musical geniuses because he never lost sight of his modest beginnings (he always referred to himself as a peasant) and always looked out for those less fortunate than himself. The proof is in those series of benefit shows when he wisely recognized his presence – along with that of even higher-profile “rock” stars — would generate much more money for a good cause.
Many in the classical music hierarchy looked down their noses at him for crossing over to the pop world. They thought he sold out when in reality he “sold in.” Pavarotti was artistically and humanly “inclusive” and “diverse” long before those convenient catch-phrases became cool, tragically hip and eventually lost all of their intended meaning. More than any performer before him and few since, Pavarotti put his money where his mouth was. He placed the concerns of the less fortunate above his own and – just like his mom many decades earlier with such a soft touch – urged others to do the same.
Never has opera been so damn cool or rewarding than with “Pavarotti.”
Presented in English and frequently subtitled Italian.