Any film about Luciano Pavarotti must deliver the kind of experience that made him the most admired and recognised singer of his age. Pavarotti, directed by master storyteller Ron Howard, reaches this goal but in a surprising way. The film juxtaposes the singer’s messy personal life with his peerless musical achievement. Given a remarkable level of access to Pavarotti’s family and friends, Howard shot extensive interviews with his ex-wife, Andua Veroni, and their three daughters – Lorenza, Cristina, and Giuliana. A trace of bitterness is seen and heard in Andua’s recollections of her husband, while the daughters cannot hide the pain resulting from an often absent and philandering father.
The American soprano Madelyn Renée Monti, a personal assistant who became his mistress, is seen talking about the joy of being part of the singer’s world and why she had to walk away. The young woman who became Pavarotti’s second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani (bearing him a fourth daughter, Alice), speaks of Pavarotti with radiant happiness in stark contrast with his first family.
Howard layers his film in a way that helps to explain, but not excuse, the singer’s behaviour. He shows us a naturally gregarious man who suffers from loneliness as he circles the world from one hotel and opera house to another. An entourage becomes a family away from home, providing company and comfort to a man who never eats alone or moderately. Nor does he live moderately. Pavarotti lives the way he sings – as if everything depended on that moment.
Howard shows Pavarotti walking on stage, saying “I go to die”, not knowing whether the voice would be there or not. Having been privileged to see him sing at the Met in his prime, I never saw Pavarotti give less than his all – he didn’t coast. And, just when you thought he had sung as no other man could do, he would go to the next level, the one you didn’t believe was possible.
Some fans despaired over The Three Tenors tour and the Pavarotti & Friends one that followed. Howard, however, treats these concerts as expressions of Pavarotti’s generosity. The first Three Tenors concert was his attempt with Plácido Domingo to get their friend José Carreras back on his feet after his battle with cancer. I had seen excerpts from the 1990 Three Tenors concert in Rome. But Howard re-edits segments making their singing of O sole mio a few minutes of musical magic, a testimony to friendship, and evidence of music’s pre-eminence in expressing and begetting joy.
Pavarotti & Friends arose out of his concern for the surviving children of the Bosnian genocide. As I watched these clips, I realised it was a ritual of tribute: the gods of pop music had gathered to to pay homage to the god of music, Luciano Pavarotti.
Deal W Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s arts editor
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