Ron Howard is fast becoming a noted music documentarian: His 2016 film, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — the Touring Years,” released by Abramorama in theaters and Hulu on television, was a Grammy winner. His follow-up is “Pavarotti,” a doc about the man who became one of the most successful and beloved opera singers in history. The movie, which opened on June 7, features seminal performances by the late tenor as well as intimate interviews, including never-before-seen footage and appearances by such fans as Princess Diana, Bono, Nelson Mandela, Spike Lee, Kofi Annan, Stevie Wonder and Sting.
To craft the film, Howard reteamed with “The Beatles” project editor Paul Crowder and co-producer Nigel Sinclair, who were involved from the start, says the director. “As with the Beatles film, it really helps to have an editor who’s very musical,” Howard says, “and Paul, who’s also a director, brings all that: his musicality, sense of rhythm and pace.”
Crowder, a musician in his own right, also helmed the docs “The Last Play at Shea,” chronicling the Billy Joel concert that served as the final bow for the former home of the New York Mets, and “Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who,” a look at the rise of the legendary British rock band.
“Pavarotti’s life has this natural three-act arc,” explains Crowder, “the opera star, the ‘Three Tenors’ star [with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras] and his philanthropic work. And we wanted to tie in the natural intense emotion of opera to his real life, and present the film in an operatic way.” But the editing challenge, Crowder adds, was that opera isn’t like rock ’n’ roll. “It’s changing all the time, and you can’t treat it like rock, which tends to just repeat verses and choruses. Musically, it’s far more complex, and it’s far more taboo to cut an aria, say, than to shorten a pop song. You can’t step on the lyric either.”
Crowder and team solved this problem by finding pieces of music throughout the film that matched the theme at any given moment. He adds, “We discovered that by also using some instrumental opera music, it allowed us to feature the lyrics when necessary.”
When adding lyrics to one instrumental musical section that was subsequently screened for Howard, the crew came upon the happy realization that providing subtitles added a great deal of power to the performance. “Up till that point, I hadn’t paid that much attention to the lyrics,” Crowder allows, “but after this, it became a key part of the film.”
Howard explains that with documentaries, there’s the added challenge of working without a script. “You kind of start with these buckets, where you collect ideas, and the editor isn’t necessarily trying to weave it all together yet,” he says. “He’s looking at themes, ideas, sequences, and at footage and quotes that might serve those aspects.”
Crowder, who cut on Avid at his home studio, worked closely with assistant editor Sierra Neal to deliver the director’s vision. “She helped me pick the music for the whole film and was also co-music supervisor with me,” he says. “We always kept moving forward and only got fiddly with stuff later on.”
In taking a long look at the project, Sinclair says that Crowder “edits like a painter. He’s very fluid and layers in lots of detail, which perfectly suits the music and the film.”