Ron Howard doesn’t remember meeting Luciano Pavarotti so much as feeling his presence. “My memory has less to do with my brief handshake and fleeting eye contact with the maestro and more to do with the fact that it was at this giant Golden Globes event with major movie stars and elite television stars,” the film director says. “But even with those people there, when he arrived, he was it. And that was in the early Eighties, before the Three Tenors even. He was beginning to have that kind of impact, at least on the creative community. The fact he was there meant more to all of us than anything.”
Now Howard is taking a closer look at Pavarotti’s impact in a new, feature-length documentary named after the famed tenor. Pavarotti traces the opera legend’s life from his youth in war-torn Modena, Italy to the world stage through commentary from both of his wives, the daughters from his first marriage, the two surviving Three Tenors, Bono and many others, along with vintage interviews with the late singer. It contains rare footage and recordings, including shots of him performing in a choir with his father before his fame, a clip of him singing in La Bohème mere months after his stage debut and handkerchief-clutching performances in locales as varied as Liberty, Missouri, Brazil and Russia. There is also private home video footage he made for his family. Although it skates past a few rough patches in Pavarotti’s life, it provides insight into the singer’s desire to bring opera to everyone and just how he saw the world, prior to his death in 2007. (It hits theaters on June 7th.)
“We felt like it was a surprising story,” Howard says, including himself with the rest of the doc’s creative team, who helped him make The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. “Even though he’s a household name, there was so much that none of us really knew about his life, which turned out to be pretty operatic in its own right. The more I dug into the reading and watching performances, I, as a movie director, felt like the close-ups of him singing were akin to Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or something. He’s so powerful, emotional and expressive.”
As he got more into it, Howard realized that people may know Pavarotti’s name but even opera buffs might not know the whole of the wild-haired vocal virtuoso’s outsized story, so he worked on making it accessible — much in the same way Pavarotti wanted to make opera itself more accessible. But in the end, Howard says he had a greater goal: “To deepen people’s understanding of how emotional his singing can be.” It’s something he felt firsthand.
What surprised you most about Pavarotti’s life, as you did the research for this doc?
The sheer joy he had, and the sort of maverick side of his life, whether that had to do with his personal romantic relationships or choosing to sing with pop stars to help bring awareness to opera or to raise money for philanthropic programs. These things caused him a lot of grief. Often, he knew he was going to be criticized and yet he chose to go ahead and engage in whatever it was he believed in, either on principle or commitment to a cause.
In the interview that he did later with his second wife— a year or so before he died — he talks about how it hurts to be criticized. And you then recognize he would still choose to make these controversial decisions, whether they were personal or professional. That’s a brand of courage that I think is useful and important to acknowledge.
Was it difficult for you to get his first wife, Adua, and second wife, Nicoletta, in the same film?
Well, it’s very significant in that it’s the first time that the families have really cooperated with each other to a significant degree. And yes, it was difficult. I don’t think I would’ve done the movie without their cooperation and involvement because I didn’t want to just skip through his career and the headlines. What’s interesting to me is that despite the heartache, his family loves him, misses him and wants him to be well remembered.
There was a bitter dispute over Pavarotti’s estate and will after he died. How did it seem between everyone now?
There’s a lot of tension. It was very hard to go back and talk about some of these things and hard for them to go back and see the movie. Their participation, to me, is kind of inspiring. It’s almost a lesson in understanding and even forgiving. They’re not forgetting, but they’re really coming to terms with it in a way that’s admirable. And they did some of that when he was alive, which is so powerful and moving to me. They talk about how, on his deathbed, all of them, including ex-lovers who were never married to him, arrived to connect with him. His first wife, as upsetting as it might have been, tried to cook for him one last time. These things were very unexpected for all of us.
On a similar note, did Plácido Domingo or José Carreras joke about any lingering rivalries with Pavarotti when they did their interviews? His fame eclipsed theirs.
No, just as they said on camera, they maintained that it was mostly fun and games. With the Three Tenors, there were some business squabbles and things like that. But all that got ironed out and we didn’t feel it made sense or needed to be in the film.
What I love about that sequence in our movie is that while everybody knows about the Three Tenors, not very many people know why or how the act came to be, that it just began as a way to help get Carreras back out onstage and prove that he could still perform at that level. And boy, does he.
There were a few negative parts of Pavarotti’s life that seemed significant that weren’t heavily represented in the film. There was the time he was booed at La Scala at the peak of his fame. His final tour had many cancellations. Why weren’t those incidents mentioned much?
Well, we did mention that he went through a period where he was cancelling tours. On the final tour, we didn’t feel like that was as significant as the way people were responding to his performances. And Bono’s defense was so powerful and passionate that we ultimately decided to focus on that aspect of the final tour.
Well, the incident at La Scala was in 1992, when he was at the peak of his fame and long before his death, and it generated a lot of negative press. That seems important to address.
Well, that was also in that little period around the time where we say he was kind of having a midlife malaise. One of the critics that we have speaking in the film talks about how he was a little bit out at sea. I think that was around the time. The Tenors had happened, but it’s right around the time where he seemed to have this awakening around philanthropic projects.
And so, you know, you’re right. We didn’t play up that moment. But it wasn’t taken out particularly tactically or strategically. It really was just us trying to cover as much ground as we could and not repeat ourselves.
How did you come across some of the rare footage in the doc?
The family was making a lot of that available. There’s some great footage from the wings when he’s doing La Fille du Régiment, where he’s hitting the High Cs. There are, like, seven or eight of them in a row. I don’t think that’s been seen before, at least widely. And we took pains to do a spectacular job mixing the audio.
How did you go about that?
Chris Jenkins, who mixed Eight Days a Week, wanted to go back to Abbey Road to mix this. He was almost being superstitious about it, because we had a good experience on The Beatles. So we’re mixing and suddenly he finds out that in the big hall, the LSO is about to record the next day, so the mics are all set up in the room to record the orchestra. He asks permission to go in and record tracks. He stripped out some of the vocals on some of Luciano’s performances and we recorded it so that we could make the whole thing feel a little bit more in the way we’re accustomed to hearing symphonic recordings.
In the film, Zubin Mehta, who conducted the Three Tenors, says that whenever Pavarotti would hit a high C, your ears would vibrate. I could feel that when I saw it.
I felt that, too, the last time we mixed the Three Tenors. The hairs went up on the back of my neck on our final soundcheck. Certainly, that kind of visceral response from the audience is something we were shooting for.