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Film review: Pavarotti

19 July 2019

Stephen Brown sees a new documentary about Pavarotti

The young Pavarotti on stage: an image used in the film

The young Pavarotti on stage: an image used in the film

RON HOWARD, fresh from the documentary The Beatles: Eight days a week, turns his attention to another musical phenomenon in Pavarotti (Cert. 12A). There are a few nods to Luciano Pavarotti’s superstar pamperings — 28 suitcases when travelling — but, overall, this is an account (in Pope Benedict’s words) of one humbly honouring the divine gift of music; as the maestro puts it, giving back to God what God has given to me.

Pavarotti’s spiritual roots lay in the church choir in Modena, northern Italy, where he sang. An anxious stay in hospital with a life-threatening complaint as a child was redeemed by a priest’s visit, thus strengthening his faith. The television interviewer Russell Harty asks if he remains a devout Roman Catholic — yes, but it’s also an insurance policy. We discover that Pavarotti carries a nail as a talisman, possibly to represent Christ’s crucifixion.

There is a sense of co-operation with God, whatever the context. The tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras were not rivals, but colleagues in the quest to inspire the world. The idea of being God’s co-creators seems to have extended to anyone in contact with Pavarotti, from cleaners to managers. Howard’s documentary, however, is by no means a hagiography, although it is sometimes coyly discreet.

Pavarotti’s philanderings are barely mentioned, and his tax evasions are ignored. At the centre we witness, through family archives, home videos, and behind-the-scenes and extensive live-music footage, an essentially lonely man, needing to surround himself with people in the long absences from home.

His divorce is something of a turning point, as he had always cultivated a perfect public image. The singer of the band U2, Bono, who worked with him, remarks that he was finally owning up to his humanity. Suddenly, this cuddly bear of a man is Tonio from Pagliacci, the clown who cries “La commedia è finita!” (“The comedy is finished!”). This leads one to a consideration of the film’s expansive musical content.

It would be hard to seize on just one of the many tingle moments. The nine high Cs from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment provide an early taste of forthcoming thrills, but take your pick from arias that follow from La Bohème, Turandot, La Traviata, etc.

Howard’s documentary avoids becoming a filmed recital by using music as commentary on the tale unfolding. And, for that reason, it is the sombre pieces that really hit home. More than once, we hear “A Silent Tear” accompanying darker aspects of the singer’s life: the Nazi atrocities of his childhood, and the eventual marital breakdown.

But there is also hope. Pavarotti’s charitable fund-raisers alleviated suffering in many parts of the world. He can even draw blessings from the stillbirth of one of the twins that he and Nicola Mantovani, his soon to be second wife, were expecting; he saw heaven as the ultimate fulfilment of life here on earth, no matter how little or abundantly we experienced it.

When on the threshold of death himself, Mario’s final words from Tosca sum up Pavarotti’s enduring attitude: I never before loved life so much.

His song has ended, but the film makes emotionally sure that its memory lingers on. Take a Pavarotti-sized handkerchief with you.

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