Few things are as sublime as the voice of legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Fewer still are as dryly dull to non-buffs as opera. That, in a nutshell, is the problem that Ron Howard struggles with but ultimately fails to overcome in his latest documentary. The singer made history (and a fortune) liberating music from the opera house and bringing it to the masses. Throughout Pavarotti, the filmmaker seems perversely determined to put it back.
How self-defeating is Howard's approach? Imagine how much less engaging his The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years would've been had it focused on the Fabs' childhoods and parents and their tenure as the Cavern Club's house band, then profiled in baffling breadth the managers, music publishers and promoters who asterisked through their sphere before they hit it big.
That's what much of this movie is like: faded family photos, too many talking heads talking business, way deeper background than desirable on roles Pavarotti played before he hit it big. Honestly, do you know La Bohème's Rodolfo from Rigoletto's Duca di Mantova, and do you feel a pressing need to? Pavarotti became Pavarotti when he left that behind to fill concert halls and stadiums with his heavenly instrument and supersize charisma.
The picture is nearly two hours long. Maybe 20 minutes are revelatory. It opens with home-video footage of Pavarotti traveling upriver to Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, the opera house in the Brazilian rainforest where Enrico Caruso sang a century earlier (and, unmentioned, the inspiration for Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo). It's a captivating sequence. Pavarotti had performed to a huge crowd the night before. The moment would have been lost forever if a friend hadn't whipped out a camcorder and captured the maestro serenading an audience of a dozen.
Toward the end of the film, Howard recruits Bono, who shares a story illustrating the man's mischievously Machiavellian side. At the peak of his fame, Pavarotti presided over annual charity concerts, performing with popular artists he admired (Barry White, the Spice Girls, Meat Loaf — now there's an idea for a movie). He asked U2 to write a song for one such show. They agreed. Later, he called to ask them to perform it with him. Impossible, Bono demurred; they were recording. "Oh, I'm on my way to the studio," came the gleeful response. "I'm in Dublin." And, of course, U2 bent to the great man's will.
The film confirms but doesn't much augment what we already know. By the 1970s, Pavarotti had conquered the opera world. He went on to conquer the larger world of music employing strategies conceived by advisers but propelled by a gift he knew was God-given. Like the Beatles, his ascendancy was part device and part destiny, and had to happen when and where it did. A rock star for all practical purposes, he helped himself to traditional indulgences. By the turn of the century, he'd become the biggest classical artist ever. He still is.
But who was Pavarotti? Could he read music or not? Why did he make the 1982 embarrassment Yes, Giorgio? What elevated him beyond "the Other Two Tenors"? Why did he chronically cancel concerts? Would he have survived in the #MeToo age? Was his farewell performance lip-synched? So many avenues remain unexamined, one gets the sense that, as Howard trudged through this project, he gradually lost his way, perhaps even his interest. Regarding the latter possibility, all I know for a fact is that I most definitely did.