Friday 14 June 2019

An artist obscured by his own mythos: Ron Howard's documentary 'Pavarotti'

Ron Howard: Pavarotti
Pavarotti; directed: Ron Howard, with Bono, Herbert Breslin, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Harvey Goldsmith, Andrea Griminelli, Angela Gheorghiu, Nicolette Mantovani, Zubin Mehta, Anne Midgette, Cristina Pavarotti, Guiliana Pavarotti, Lorenza Pavarotti, Madelyn Renee, Adua Veroni; Release date 15 July 2019
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 11 June 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Ron Howard's straight forward documentary about Luciano Pavarotti feels like something of a lost opportunity

Whatever your views on the soubriquet “King of the high C’s”, the phenomenon that was Pavarotti bestrode the worlds of classical and pop music like a colossus. The son of a baker with a penchant for scarves, his "voice of platinum” and his infectious charm propelled him ever upward in the musical firmament until he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. Ron Howard’s documentary Pavarotti salutes the man and his talent.

Ron Howard takes a straight forward chronological approach, using talking heads, archive footage and photographs to retell the story of his life and career and it is good, as far as it goes. Some of the received wisdom about Pavarotti’s life stretches credulity so it seems perfectly legitimate, even laudable, to take a fastidiously balanced approach to these things especially when there is so much ordure disseminated on the interweb. That said, I wondered what sort of audience this was being pitched at? I didn’t care which but I’d rather it had been settled upon.

With a running time of 115 minutes I’d imagined the "definitive story" would be a work of some heft, a dissection of, if not the man, his art. The potted synopses of some of the most popular operas in the repertoire told another story. What could have been a sparkling, witty even poignant reflection on his life became a dry retelling of his career, more notable for what was left unsaid.

Most of the participants including his family and other notables offered insights that felt scripted rather than improvised and amidst the occasional moments of toe-curling pretention there seemed no space for the nicely turned anecdotes that would have brought the thing to life. Whilst his sometimes-challenging behaviour and peccadillos were briefly alluded to, everyone was on their relentless best and dullest behaviour.

What made this simple man, this self-confessed "peasant "who did not know how to write a cheque" tick?
We know that this supreme exponent of canto Italiano was adored by millions but what was it, for instance, that inspired so many non-opera lovers, and presumably the audience of this film, to spend their hard earned on his concerts and recordings? We know that he was serious about perfecting his voice; so, what about his technique? And what about an attempt to see him in context? Ah, well that would spoil the party wouldn’t it?

I was still at college when I heard his voice for the first time. It’s one of the few moments these days that I can recall with crystal clarity. Listening to his recordings had simply not prepared me for that night. My flabber had never been so gasted. I was in awe of an instrument of such size, style and beauty - and bugger his acting. He was unashamedly an entertainer. Then as now, I appreciated his brand of artistry on its own terms. But for all that, little excitement was generated on screen.

There were moments when it threatened to spring to life. Scarpia’s theme was used to introduce Herbert Breslin, one-time agent and bitchy biographer, and I perked up momentarily before that cheeky idea was discarded. Harvey Goldsmith, the concert promoter, was clearly relishing his stories and was easily the most interesting interviewee. There were some glimpses of Pavarotti's childlike lack of self-consciousness, infectious charm, even his nervousness. "I go to die" he announced before an entrance, carrying a bent nail for luck. Tocca ferro.

Whilst there’s plenty of joy to be had in some of the reminiscences and the rarer clips even for a hard-bitten opera aficionado, somewhere in the mix we lost the real man and the artist. This does his enduring popularity a disservice. One doesn’t have to be salacious to be honest. To sanitise the man entirely is not only dull but feels like a betrayal and, more to the point, a wasted opportunity.
Reviewed by Anthony Evans

Director : Ron Howard
With : Bono, Herbert Breslin, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Harvey Goldsmith, Andrea Griminelli, Angela Gheorghiu, Nicolette Mantovani, Zubin Mehta, Anne Midgette, Cristina Pavarotti, Guiliana Pavarotti, Lorenza Pavarotti, Madelyn Renee, Adua Veroni
Release date : July 15, 2019

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