There can be no mistaking the man or the voice. You know it even if you think you don’t. If it’s not accompanied some highly emotional compilation video it’s been parodied to within an inch of its life in your favourite sitcom. But Luciano is certainly no parody as Ron Howard’s incredibly respectful and insightful documentary eloquently points out. Pavarotti sadly passed away in September of 2007 so its even more remarkable that Howard has been able to craft such an intimate character study and make it seem like he actually had unrestricted access to his subject for the duration. It’s hardly surprising that the Pavarotti estate has endorsed the film. But perhaps the unwavering admiration and courtesy shown is what prevents the film from being truly exceptional. What we’re left with is a surprisingly emotional insight that goes beyond the man, beyond the voice and into your heart.
From his early days as a young baker’s son to his meteoric rise to fame as an operatic tenor-come-rock star, never-before-seen footage peppers the show. I say never-before-seen as someone who really hasn’t seen much Pavarotti anyway (his incredible performance of ‘Sorry’ alongside Tracy Chapman aside). But it’s clear from the off that the footage is fresh, raw and deeply personal. Indeed the film is book-ended with a confessional-type interview on camcorder, in which an unknown woman (presumably his second wife Nicoletta Mantovani) throws a series of reflective questions at him; “How does he want to be remembered, not as a singer, but as a man?”.
The archive footage of early stage performances in Opera Houses from his hometown of Modena are thrilling to see, knowing what an absolute beast he would become on the worldwide stage. A life-time devotee to the joys of food, his great hulking form is unmistakable from the very beginning. As word of his greatness begins to spread he is snapped up by agents, managers and gig promoters across the globe. It’s a wonderful journey to be taken on as we get to explore the limits, or lack thereof, to his fame.
But across the two-hour runtime, the greatest moments come not from see his increased reputation take him across the world, but of his frailties and his humanity. Painfully insecure, we see him seconds before performing, resigning himself to his fate with the damning words “I go to die”. A lifelong humanitarian it is a joy to smile along with him as he works to improve the lives of countless young communities across the globe. His cheeky moments in the rain with Princess Diana and his mugging off of Bono from U2 on live television in order to get him to play at Pavarotti & Friends in his home town of Modena are particular highlights.
But the absolute peak of perfection in this film comes as Placido Domingo explains how the Three Tenors came to perform together the night before the World Cup Final. As we watch Nessun Dorma performed in full, the insanely beautiful soundtrack bellowing in our ears, the joy and warm-heartedness of these three men practically bursting from the screen, we know why this was all so important to Pavarotti. His voice and his words expressed a beauty and realness that would otherwise be just out of reach. For a man who always wanted to take opera to the people, the opportunity to do this on a literal world stage was the ultimate gratification. The performance is powerful, deeply moving and hugely significant.
Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer in 2007. His loss to the music world is great. But there is a deeper loss felt by those closest to him, particularly his daughters, the youngest of whom was barely in her father’s life before he passed. This is where the documentary could perhaps have gone a little further behind the veil. His personal life was far from scandalous (although certain publications would have you believe that’s not the case), but it would have been nice to see a little more of what drove the man. What really went on with his family away from the limelight, away from stardom, away from the ‘voice’?
That being said, the great maestro himself would be proud of Ron Howard’s epic documentary as it hits all the right notes. Much like Luciano hitting 9 high C’s in one performance, Howard manages to find an incredible amount of warmth and humanity to put on display here.
Directed by: Ron Howard