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Ron Howard tells the story of the larger-than-life tenor who introduced opera to the masses, but this documentary struggles to find its own voice.

It’s the Little Things That Give You Away

Luciano Pavarotti
Luciano Pavarotti

Leave it to Bono to put a spark into things. His account of working with Luciano Pavarotti is funny and honest. It’s exactly the kind of insight and storytelling that lifts this documentary out of rather standard fair. A couple “F” bombs are dropped and a very colorful picture of the famed opera singer is drawn through Bono’s words.

But that’s later in the movie. We’ll get back to that story of the Irishman and the Italian.

While the structure is the fairly standard cradle-to-grave approach, there is a bookend component that helps put a little more punch into the film’s end. The opening is a family video of Luciano speaking directly to the camera. It’s an older Pavarotti. He’s reflecting on his life and how he wants to be remembered in 100 years. In the beginning, he shares comments about his success in music, most notably opera. He would shun his critics, follow his instincts. And that voice! Unmatchable.

The movie ends by going back to that video. This time, Luciano talks about the other part of his life. His family. And... Well... Maybe he could’ve done some things differently. Given what’s unfolded, those regrets are thoroughly understood.

In between those two segments, Howard unfolds his portrait with the typical mix of archival footage and new interviews. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in the presentation (in fairness, the recent documentaries They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11 are mighty tough acts to follow). But, more significantly, there aren’t any really earth-shattering discoveries about the man. It’s an appreciation. Not a revelation.

Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own

Perhaps the thing to appreciate most about Pavarotti is how much he was simply “one of us.”

He had the humblest of beginnings, with a father, Fernando, who also had a beautiful tenor voice, but who made his living as a baker. Fernando encouraged his son to pursue a career in academia, but his mother, Adele, was the one who saw Luciano’s future in music. Humble beginnings always make for a good story; Luciano was something of an underdog, despite that talent.

Then, with his voice heard, things changed.

And, to a certain extent, so did Luciano — behind the veneer of his carefully curated public profile. But, in all honesty, those changes can hardly be considered surprising. And they aren’t even shocking — not from the vantage point of 2019 — except to the most naïve.

The stories of infidelity — ultimately leading to a controversial divorce (Italian. Catholic.) — aren’t surprising. Disappointing, sure, but almost par for the course. Assistants become confidants and then something more on more than one occasion. And one such relationship culminated in a second marriage, this time to Nicoletta Mantovani, a woman 34 years his junior.

But amid the scandals also shines the humanity. Within those two marriages, Luciano had four daughters. Amid one daughter’s life-threatening illness, he got off the road and stayed home, devoting his time and attention to her care. The public criticized him for doing the right thing here. And the public castigated him for his indiscretions.

With that second marriage, the promise of twins was shattered when one was stillborn.

The Showman (A Little More Better)

Even though the King of the High C’s had a voice gifted by God, his life was not protected from the elements and from pain. Once again, it’s that sense of this great talent also simply being “one of us.”

Here’s perhaps the movie’s biggest reveal: Pavarotti was a nervous wreck before each performance. As he headed to the stage, he’d say, “I go to die.” That’s a bit of inspiration for anybody who has to stand in front of an audience — or a team — and give a presentation. Pavarotti went on stage to die — and lived to tell the tale.

There’s also value in seeing Pavarotti’s professional ambitions unfold. First, he brought opera into the mainstream. He did the talk shows (even Saturday Night Live). He presented himself as a man with a sense of humility and humor. And then he took that fame and branched out, much to the chagrin of purists and those of limited vision.

Once he started filling stadiums for his performances, Pavarotti was in his own right a “rock star.” And it wasn’t much of a stretch to start befriending those rockers. Those friendships morphed into an annual benefit concert in his hometown of Modena, Italy. Madonna. Mariah Carey. Jon Bon Jovi. Brian May. Elton John. Sting. Dolores O’Riordan. The opera superstar mingled with a who’s who of pop’s upper crust.

Miss Sarajevo

Now let’s go back to that Bono character.

As fate would have it, Nicoletta loved U2. In the thick of the success of the Pavarotti & Friends series, she urged her husband to pursue a collaboration with the Irish quartet. And therein lies some of the documentary’s best humor and insights.

Like the saying goes, “Happy wife, happy life.” Pavarotti, wanting that happy life, phoned Bono incessantly. In the process, he forged a friendship with Bono’s housekeeper, who in turn started to pester the rocker about not responding to Pavarotti’s persistent requests to team up.

Bono puts it this way: Luciano was an emotional arm wrestler and he’d break your [expletive] arm. At first, his ambivalence toward the idea is a bit unexpected. U2’s performed with B.B. King, Willie Nelson and so many others. Bono wrote a song dedicated to Frank Sinatra. The band embraces all sorts of musical influences. Bono’s father was a tenor (which is referenced in a couple U2 songs). The Edge’s father was also a tenor.

But Bono’s seeming reluctance to jump into the fray came right as the band came off the monumental success of their ZOO-TV tour. The band had gone through — arguably — the greatest reinvention in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, from the heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the in-your-face devilishness of Achtung Baby, turning things upside-down and inside-out with unmatched stage work. Only a few years earlier, they nearly broke up. Then Edge hit upon those golden chords for One.

Thankfully, though, Pavarotti won out — without breaking Bono’s arm. The result of their collaboration was Miss Sarajevo, released as part of U2’s “special project” Passengers. This song, intended as a sort of healing gesture for the land ravaged by the Bosnian War, features an exquisite aria by Pavarotti — in Italian. Even now, it’s an emotional showstopper during U2’s tours — with Bono belting out those eloquent Italian lyrics with aplomb.

If only Howard and writer Mark Monroe, who collaborated on The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years, had taken this material and gone further by digging into Pavarotti’s legacy and revealing his impact that’s still felt in the music industry today. As it stands, Pavarottie is a decent look at the man. But there’s so much more to consider and take to a deeper level.