Calleri
Decca Records/CBS Films
 
 An intense Luciano Pavarotti prepares to sing in the recording studio as shown in the new documentary about his life and music. 

 

It’s possible you think you know everything there is to know about legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, but the engaging new documentary about him is filled with surprises, which is as it should be when celebrating a man who seemed larger than life.

Pavarotti was saluted by the music world as the greatest tenor since the fabled Enrico Caruso, whose scratchy, early 20th-century recordings, when heard today, sound like alien visitors from an improbable past.

Pavarotti sold more than 100-million albums, including recordings of complete operas, collections of arias, and compilations of duets with popular singers such as Barry White, Lionel Ritchie, James Brown (yes, the James Brown of rock and roll history), Sheryl Crow, The Eurythmics, Lou Reed, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, U2 (especially with its frontman Bono), Elton John, Sting, and Frank Sinatra, among others.

Pavarotti also shares the record for the best-selling classical music album in history for “The Three Tenors,” on which he sang along with Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo.

Twelve years after his death in 2007 at age 71 in Modena, Italy, the city of his birth, Pavarotti continues to have an extraordinary impression on the music world. The anticipation of hearing his thrilling voice still generates sales of CDs and downloads.

There are scores of positive insights to be found in director Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti,” written by Mark Monroe, with Cassidy Hartmann as consulting writer.

One of the most endearing facts about Luciano, Italian to the core, is that he never traveled without his beloved home-made foods from Italy, including prosciutto, pasta, olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and, of course, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (balsamic vinegar) from his birth city.

True balsamic vinegar is aged in barrels for many years (at least a minimum of 3, and often up to 25), and only contains cooked “grape must” from the Trebbiano white grape. It never contains wine vinegar. Pavarotti wanted the food with which he grew up in his suitcases wherever he went.

The documentary is filled with dozens of interviews, including with the singer’s first wife, Adua Veroni (they were married for 39-years), as well as his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani.

For the first time, Pavarotti’s three adult daughters Cristina, Giuliana, and Lorenza speak on camera. It’s readily apparent there is discontent and ill-feelings among the daughters regarding their father’s behavior towards, and treatment of, their mother. Ms. Mantovani is “the other woman.” There was also a mistress in his life.

In addition to Bono, with whom Pavarotti established a long-lasting bond, others interviewed include his tenor friends Carreras and Domingo, as well as conductor Zubin Mehta.

One thing director Howard doesn’t do is delve too deeply into his subject’s psyche, or even into possible demons. There is no psychological analysis. Should there be? Yes, I think so.

I appreciate the positive insights, but no prodigiously talented human, who achieves the level of acclaim, even adoration, that Pavarotti earned, does so without introspection. Without fear of falling or fading.

Howard, of course, is well aware of what celebrity means. He was instantly famous as a child actor. The picture he paints of the tenor is that there was a lot of gold in his life and very little of it became tarnished. This is why you’re glad for some sense of perspective from the daughters.

I’m not going to condemn Howard for loving the subject of his film too much. However, after he and his researchers pored over years of performance footage and interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, and getting some first-hand accounts, there certainly had to be a little more darkness than is shared with moviegoers.

If Pavarotti really was as warm and cuddly as is shown, then good for him. He exudes joy regarding his very existence. Did he ever think he was a difficult person? There’s an interesting moment when, while being interviewed by his second wife Nicoletta, he calls his voice, “the prima donna of my body.”

Any film about Luciano Pavarotti rises and falls on the quality of the opera and concert footage. There’s a lot to enjoy and some of the singing we experience is electrifying. Historic family material includes photographs of Pavarotti as a child. His father sang as an amateur tenor, and Luciano, a teacher by education, insists that his father’s voice was better.

A newly discovered filmed sequence from 1995, recorded by flutist Andrea Griminelli in Brazil, has Pavarotti visiting the opera house in the city of Manaus in the Amazon jungle and singing a folk song popular in Naples. Decades earlier, Caruso had performed at the very same opera house.

There is excitement after Pavarotti receives international attention after his initial stage success. He was a “curtain going up soon” substitute for singer Giuseppe Di Stefano as Rudolfo in “La Boheme” at London’s Covent Garden in 1963. Later, he would join forces with bel canto opera singer Joan Sutherland, and the road to fame was quickly paved.

The movie is filled with arias. Pavarotti’s favorite was “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini.

Pavarotti comes across as everyone’s favorite uncle. This was another role he played, often with great emotion.

He’s like a man-child who didn’t want to grow old. He loved his life, and as the documentary reveals, he was eager to share his grand artistry with the world.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.