Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-Excellence on the Surface
My wife responded with chuckles the first time I said this, and has made me repeat this opinion to numerous people throughout the years. I always have to explain it further, but I mean it one hundred percent. On my short list of greatest actors, I definitely include….Ron Howard.
It’s simple. From “The Andy Griffith Show”, to “American Graffitti”, to “Happy Days”, nobody more consistently and realistically portrayed a kid, then a teenager, than Howard. That wasn’t an actor playing a kid up there on the screen, or on my TV, there was Opie, there was Richie Cunningham, real kids, not too smart, not too precious, not too cool. Totally believable and authentic.
Then Howard had the unbelievably good sense and humility to realize than nobody wanted to see those kids grown up and balding. I have no doubt Howard would have made a fine character actor, but instead, he has gifted us as a director with a litany of great films like “Cocoon”, “Apollo 13” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Cinderella Man”, among numerous others.
Recently he has developed a little cottage industry of his own, documentaries about music. Starting with 2013’s “Made in America” about Jay Z’s music festival of the same name, and on to the brilliant “The Beatles: Eight Day’s a Week” in 2016, and now “Pavarotti”.
I am married to an opera singer, one who was in master classes with Pavarotti, but I am not an opera lover. I greatly admire the craft and dedication of what it takes, but it is not a favored genre of mine. The point of saying that is you don’t have to be any kind of opera fan to be completely blown away by the unbelievable quality of the man’s singing. Crystal clear, and tossing away high C’s like loose change, it is magnificent, and is at the core of Howard’s documentary.
This is not a deep dive into the details of the man’s life, it is more a celebration. We get to see and hear a bit about his missteps and foibles, but not often. Just like “Eight Days a Week”, there is no narrator in this film. Any voiceovers are those of Pavarotti’s or the subjects interviewed, which include rare public comments from his first wife, two of his mistresses, and his daughters.
The film opens with Pavarotti taking a side trip during a concert tour up the Amazon to a remote jungle city with a small concert hall that Enrico Caruso had once sung in. The building is locked, but of course, this is Pavarotti, so they find someone to let him in and a handful of people are treated to an impromptu concert.
This is merely the first of a series of delightful vignettes that are on film and unearthed for this documentary. The film darts back occasionally to depictions of the very young Pavarotti, the son of a baker who was a fine tenor himself, with Luciano saying that his father was actually a better singer than he was. They won a choral competition together as part of a church choir when Luciano was a teenager.
Feel-good moments like that are highlighted in this documentary, which does not seek to be hard-hitting to much of a degree. Pavarotti’s embracing of a pop culture turn in his career at the height of his operatic powers in the late 1980’s was far more controversial in the opera world than is emphasized here. His marital infidelities are part of the tale, but not a great part.
It is mainly a celebration of the immense talent, and equally large personality of the man, whose smile and boyish attitude light up every room he walks into. Interview bouquets are tossed his way repeatedly, and it’s hardly as if he doesn’t deserve them.
There are numerous highlights, such as “The Three Tenors” cohort Placido Domingo describing the relationship that an opera singer has with his voice. That it is a relationship like that with a lady, and that lady has to be pampered and protected. Pavarotti himself indeed views his voice as a gift that he must share with the world, the earliest example of which was his first tour of America, taking opera to small towns across the country while enjoying hometown buffets.
He did embrace fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese, but his love of his native Italian food was intense. To the point that he would have packed suitcases and suitcases of pasta and other delights, and would eventually have full kitchens set up in his hotel rooms, often cooking the food himself.
Pavarotti would rise to a fame that was not just immense for an opera singer but for anyone, and at that point, he pretty much stopped performing operas but instead almost exclusively recitals, turned into television specials and other extravaganzas. He would start his “Pavarotti and Friends” concerts in his hometown of Modena, Italy, featuring the top rock and pop stars of the late century. Bono’s story of being coerced by Pavarotti into writing a song for one of the shows is another high point.
These concerts raised millions for charity, which became an increased focus of his, but there was definitely a feeling in the opera world that Pavarotti was wasting his gift while he still had it. The only interviewee who really puts out any kind of negative vibe, and she does it with a smile, is Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post. Her book “The King and I” paints another side of the tale if one wants to dig deeper, that of temperamental behavior, difficulty in remembering lines, and ducking out on shows.
That is for another documentary, this one is for riveting moments like the first “The Three Tenors” performance where Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Pavarotti play “can you top this” on different arias. They are playfully but full-bore competitive, and it is a joy to watch.
Howard is a pretty straightforward documentarian, the style is the same as “Eight Days A Week”, with the interviews and archival footage carrying the weight, although the Beatles film is superior. This movie keeps you smiling and chuckling, it is far more light dessert than intense meal.
The numerous arias that we see and hear Pavarotti perform are the central theme of this piece, and even for the completely uninitiated, it would be impossible not to be dazzled. The smile, the voice, the man himself carries the day in this winning, if somewhat superficial, effort.
Clink Scale 7.6