Pavarotti review - an engaging portrait of the great tenor

Martin CullingfordFri 12th July 2019

Ron Howard's film shines a light on one of the 20th century’s most compelling artists

Could anything more eloquently express Pavarotti’s iconic status than that a documentary about him – that is, about the life of a classical musician – is getting a mainstream cinema release? Or that it’s directed by Ron Howard, whose previous subjects include The Beatles and Star Wars? Cannily, however, it knows its potential market (but then so, supremely, did Pavarotti). We begin with those initial earlier decades when the tenor bestrode the core repertoire in the world’s leading houses: used well to illustrate insights into the tenor’s art. But it’s Pavarotti the stadium star that feels the film’s focus.

There’s much to enjoy. The business-side of music is amusingly hammed up, but some of the best moments come from unadulterated footage. Pavarotti relishing his role in L’elisir d’amore (one of the few roles in which he didn’t have to die, his daughter reminds us). The life-enhancing rapport between Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras in that initial Three Tenors spectacular. Bono’s ashen face when Pavarotti, having failed to persuade him to perform at one of his charity concerts, turns up to ask in person – complete with film crew. Musical excerpts, meanwhile, remind us just what a beautiful voice his was.

A beautiful voice; a complex man. One who raised millions for the poor, poignantly filmed in late life hoping he’d been a good enough father. Who filled arenas, then journeyed to a remote and empty Amazonian opera house just to sing where Caruso once had (the movie’s opening). Who, after decades of chart-topping crossover, wanted to close his career with a traditional Tosca. A man who had everything, left feeling cheated as cancer snatched him from his new wife and infant daughter. But then, as the great operatic roles would have taught Pavarotti only too well, such paradoxes perhaps lie at the heart of all remarkable lives. 

Pavarotti opens in UK cinemas this weekend

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Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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