Watching a documentary about a famous and beloved artist, I’ll sometimes be suffused with a childlike desire to see his or her life flow forward in one long uninterrupted river of happiness and achievement, with no slumps or setbacks, no peccadilloes, no dark side. It never works out that way, of course. If it did, the subject wouldn’t be human.
Yet for a great long stretch of “Pavarotti,” Ron Howard’s ebullient and elegantly straightforward documentary about the most celebrated operatic singer of the second half of the 20th century, it’s easy to get swept up into the fantasy that Luciano Pavarotti, in his robust and rotund smiling-tenor-of-the-masses way, was at once a supreme performer and an exemplary person, relatively simple in his success. The son of a baker in the Italian comune of Modena (capital city of sports-car makers and balsamic vinegar), Pavarotti liked to describe himself as a “peasant.” And even when he became the biggest rock star of classical music on the planet, he never stopped seeing himself as an ordinary man touched with an extraordinary gift.
Howard lets you feel that that’s who Pavarotti actually was. Yet fame has a way of complicating even simple men, and “Pavarotti” is content to leave most of those complications on the cutting-room floor. Howard’s film, the third documentary that he has made about musical icons (after “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years” and the Jay-Z film “Made in America”), is built around a massive archive of photographs and performance footage that allows us to relive Pavarotti’s career — or, if you don’t know much about him (which younger viewers won’t), to taste the unprecedented quality it carried. In bringing opera to “the people,” he bridged the high and the low in a way that already looks like a nostalgic vestige of a time gone by.
There was a precedent, of course: the life and career of Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor who bestrode the opera houses of Europe and the U.S., with a fame comparable to that of Chaplin or Houdini, up until his death in 1921. The difference is that the media age was able to broadcast Pavarotti’s image to the entire world — and, of course, to make his recordings ubiquitous. The movie opens with home video footage of Pavarotti, in the mid-’90s, boating down the Amazon River, as if there wasn’t a corner of the globe that he didn’t want to reach. By that point, he’d grown used to serenading crowds of 200,000, and when he led the Three Tenors concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on July 7, 1990, it was supposed to be a highbrows-in-tuxes-meet-the-World-Cup one-off, but it turned into that unlikely thing, the first classical-music supergroup. The movie catches the three of them trying to one-up each other onstage; it’s a gorgeous friendly showdown.
When Pavarotti started out, he was a grade-school teacher who wasn’t at all sure if he could make it as a professional singer. Yet from the moment of his debut, singing the role of Rodolfo in “La Bohème” at the Teatro Municipale in 1961, he hypnotized audiences with the heavenly power of his voice. We hear that recording, and see footage of many of his early performances, when he still looked like a matinee idol — with swept-back locks and a diamond-hard glare, he resembled Armand Assante. But it wasn’t long before he began to acquire the look of a non-ironic Jack Black: a figure of flesh with eyes that burned blissfully. Pavarotti loved life and radiated it, even if most of the characters he played on stage died before the opera was over. In an orgy of doom like “Tosca,” his life force only underscored the tragedy.
His rise, as the film captures, wasn’t meteoric so much as a steady glide to the top, then poking through the ceiling, then up and out to the stars. Yet perhaps because Pavarotti’s medium was classical music, rather than rock ‘n’ roll, when he began to edge into the terrain of superstardom, moving from the opera stage to solo recitals, where it was just him and his white handkerchief (a signature accessory he began to use because, without an operatic character to hide behind, he was nervous about what to do with his hands), he forged a connection to the audience that was humble and earthbound.
His high Cs could shake the rafters and leave your ears literally vibrating, yet those notes weren’t a stunt — they were the natural climax of his vocal stairway to heaven. The film explains that the tenor range is actually a constructed one, but Pavarotti made it sound more organic than anyone else did, and the man himself — warm and crinkly and rounded, with molto magnetism — was at one with his fans. On “The Tonight Show,” talking to Johnny Carson in the broken English that revealed his charmed sincerity, he came off as an actual person. On “Phil Donahue,” cooking his favorite spicy pasta for Phil back in the era when garlic was an exotic ingredient, he was an advertisement for the glories of appetite. The singing, the cooking, the grin, even the frizzy Euro-longhair comb-over: It was all part of how Pavarotti nailed the role (or maybe it was real) of an electrifying everyman who just happened to have a voice from God.
None of this meant that he didn’t have peccadilloes. He was married, with three daughters, and for a long time he presented himself as happy to be surrounded by them (at home, he said, all these females reduced him to “nothing,” which was fine by him). But when he went on a road tour with Madelyn Renee, a soprano he first met at Juilliard, they fell into a relationship, which more or less shatters the image of Pavarotti as the dogged Catholic homebody he claimed to be. And late in his life, when he met and married Nicolette Mantovani, who was 34 years his junior, and had a child with her, for the first time his life became a scandal, especially back in Modena. It didn’t help that Pavarotti, with greasepaint eyebrows and that belly and beard, had begun to look like Pagliacci. He’d become a character in his own tabloid opera.
The movie doesn’t deal with the fractious ripples the marriage caused in Pavarotti’s own family. Viewers are free to wag their fingers at the choices he made, but Howard adopts a no-muss-no-fuss tone of benevolent civility that feels like a legitimate way to go, keeping Pavarotti’s identity as a singer front and center. The domestic breakups are about wounds. The genius of Pavarotti’s voice is that it had the power to heal. The movie pays ample testament to how that voice, for 40 years, poured out of him, rapturous and tragic, soaring on wings of pure emotion, at times wracked with a spiritual pain that was surely his own, but always lifting his audience to the mountaintop of beauty, saying, “This is where I live. And you can too.”