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Non-Review Review: Pavarotti

Pavarotti is pretty much exactly what one might expect from a Ron Howard documentary looking at the life of Luciano Pavarotti.

Howard is often overlooked or dismissed as a filmmaker, in large part because he never cultivated the same sort of auteur persona associated with other great American directors like Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. Indeed, it’s often quite difficult to pin down what exactly makes a Ron Howard film distinctly his own, which is something of a compliment. Howard has a versatility and adaptability that makes him one of the most enduring and successful major American film directors, with his filmography including films as diverse as Splash, Willow, Ransom, A Beautiful Mind and The DaVinci Code.

Nailing the high note.

However, there are certain recurring motifs that can be spotted in his work. In particular, Howard has something of a minor fascination with competence, returning time and time again to the idea of people who are very good at doing what they do. Some of Howard’s best films read as odes to competence, simply watching highly capable people in tense situations, demonstrating their skill and craft; Apollo 13, Rush and even Frost/Nixon. It is tempting to read far too much into this, to ask whether Howard sees something of himself in his subjects, the skilled craftsman who delivers exactly what’s needed more times than not.

This perhaps explains the shape of Pavarotti, Howard’s latest effort. It is a film that is very much interested in the how of its subject, more than the why. The film largely avoids trying to explain the eponymous tenor, and comes alive when discussing the maestro‘s technique, craft and organisation. There is a genuine appreciation of the skill and technique on display in Pavarotti, which is very engaged in the mechanics of how the singer accomplished so much of what he did – both in terms of actual performance, but also in terms of business management. The only problem is that this doesn’t leave much room for Pavarotti as a man.

Scoring highly.

Early in Pavarotti, the documentary plays some personal footage. Shot in a hotel room on a handheld personal video camera, it is a surprisingly intimate and candid  video. Luciano Pavarotti is wearing a dressing gown, and seems to have been caught slightly off-guard by his companion-slash-interviewer. The question broached reveals why Pavarotti chose to foreground this particular snippet of tape, as the person holding the camera asks, “How would you like to be remembered?” As in the rest of the documentary, Pavarotti himself is game. He clearly thinks about his answers, but he does provide them.

Pavarotti begins to answer the question, “As a man…” He pauses. He brushes the question aside and instead decides to answer how he would like to be remembered “as a singer…” This seems to set the tone for the documentary ahead, which devotes a lot of time to the mechanics of the Pavarotti machine. Via archive footage, Pavarotti himself discusses the muscles necessary to hold those notes. Madelyn Renée Monti discusses the importance of breathing while singing. Plácido Domingo discusses “la voce” as a mistress or a lover. Bono insists that a singer brings their “whole life” to their performance of a song.

A figure of note.

Pavarotti does circle back to that grainy hotel footage towards the end of the documentary, with Pavarotti explaining to the camera (and the audience) how he would like to be remembered as a man. However, it feels very much like an afterthought within the documentary. Running just under two hours, Pavarotti covers most of the events of the life of Pavarotti in a very linear fashion. It covers a lot of the standard beats – the affairs, the children, the scandals, the Three Tenors. However, there is something very pro forma to this recitation of events.

To be fair, at least some of it seems to be a concession to tact. After all, Luciano Pavarotti is not around any longer to defend himself, so it would seem poor taste to dwell too heavily or too obsessively on his moral and personal failings. The talking heads in Pavarotti all have a great deal of affection for the man, and it’s heartening that the warmth the tenor presented in interviews and on the publicity circuit seems to have been carried over to real life. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the film works hard to soften the edges of the man.

It avoids turning Pavarotti’s life into a soap opera.

Pavarotti at least acknowledges some of the complexities and contradictions of the singer. An interview with Bono is particularly revealing, as the U2 front man reveals how the tenor essentially manipulated him into writing Miss Sarajevo and performing at a “Pavarotti and Friends” benefit. There’s a lot of affection in how Bono tells the story, but shades of more complex emotion underpinning it. “He was an emotional arm wrestler,” Bono notes, recalling how Pavarotti would show up with a camera crew in order to get a commitment from his friends to help his charity. “He’d break your arm.”

Still, Pavarotti never dwells too much on the man himself, for better and for worse. The closest that the film comes to offering any armchair psychology is a brief discussion towards the end of the film about a coma that he endured as a child, and some brief connections between Pavarotti’s childhood in Missolini’s Italy and the horrors unfolding in Eastern Europe in the mid-nineties. However, these are just fleeting observations rather than keen insight. There is nothing here that matches the incisive insight of the best of these sorts of documentaries.

His hankerchief concerns.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend Pavarotti as a work of celebration rather than interrogation. Howard seems genuinely engaged with the discussions of how Pavarotti did what he did. Even the extended discussion of Pavarotti’s emotional strong-arming of Bono seems intended to demonstrate how Pavarotti put together his charity work involving his famous friends rather than a commentary on the man himself. There’s a lot of discussion of the business of Pavarotti, including his life on tour and the relationship between his various business managers. (Although very little on his tax evasion.)

There’s something endearingly nerdy in how much space Howard affords these sorts of details over the more salacious elements. There’s a weirdly wholesome element to Pavarotti which makes it feel dignified and charming. Howard is genuinely excited to talk about how Pavarotti kept himself fed on tour, and how he would have associates ship suitcases full of ingredients to the hotel rooms with kitchens, so that he could keep a taste of Italy with him as he toured the globe. It’s a weirdly wholesome presentation of Pavarotti, even as the film acknowledges the shadows at the edge of the frame.

Maintaining a consistent tenor.

Pavarotti is a charming study of its subject that never digs beneath the surface. As a result, it never quite reaches the high notes, even as it hums a catchy melody.

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