It’s hard to really comprehend, even less than twenty years after his death, what a gigantic superstar Luciano Pavarotti was. More than any single artist of his kind, he brought classical music to the masses in a way that engaged and enticed anyone of every background. That alone should make him a prime subject for a sweeping biographical documentary, obviously leading Oscar-winning director Ron Howard to tackle his life and legacy with ‘Pavarotti’. Yet where Pavarotti’s artistry thrilled audiences for decades, the documentary on his life lacks the same ability to thrill or inspire.
Howard’s documentary skips very quickly over Pavarotti’s childhood and family, and dives as quickly as possible into his work as a famed opera singer, rising to acclaim in the early 1960s. Are we given so little about his background because the film is more concerned with him as an artist, or because his personal life wasn’t anything of note? This is the first of a number of conundrums about the film, where you wonder whether something is a flaw of the storytelling or simply a consequence of who Pavarotti was as a person. Regardless of how much footage we’re shown or the number of contemporary interviews we hear, the film is never able to give us a sense of the man as anything other than a beloved figure. You consistently get the sense that Howard is skimming the surface of a much more interesting story (much as he did with his perfunctory 2016 Beatles documentary ‘Eight Days A Week’). There were points though where you aren’t sure if it is a fault of the film or simply because Pavarotti was exactly what they’re presenting - a genuinely beloved and kind-hearted man with very few discernible faults. Very little is said ill of him, even from those who would have reason to, and Howard’s approach is so enamoured that you end up knowing exactly as much about the man as you did when you started. After all, we’re not talking about a controversial or reclusive figure. We’re talking about one of the great superstars of the last century, one for whom the basics are mostly common knowledge.
In terms of its craft, ‘Pavarotti’ doesn’t wander far from the traditional format, moving between archival footage and contemporary interviews. In fact, it feels so perfunctory that it’s easy to lose interest, and the only thing that really holds the film together is how charismatic and loveable Pavarotti is. Howard and editor Paul Crowder aren’t trying anything daring with the form or with the storytelling, and compared to recent brilliant documentaries on music artists such as ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Maria by Callas’, both of which take unusual approaches to their subjects, ‘Pavarotti’ feels safe and uninspired. There’s no thrill or tension, no clear thesis or cinematic language. It’s exactly what you expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less.
Going back to Howard’s treatment of his subject, ‘Pavarotti’ also unintentionally uncovers a problematic aspect of the way we speak about artists, particularly comparing male artists to female ones. Pavarotti’s career blossomed at the end of that of the operatic superstar Maria Callas, but while her behaviour was picked apart and scrutinised on a daily basis, Pavarotti’s almost never was. His love of being surrounded by gorgeous women was seen (and is seen by the film) as roguishly endearing, and when he leaves his family for a younger woman towards the end of his life, there’s a patience and understanding in the film that probably wouldn’t be present if it were a woman leaving her family for someone else. Without ever intending to, the film highlights the incredible gender bias with which we forgive male geniuses of their behaviour and the lack of scrutiny their lives are put under. Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 documentary ‘Whitney’ is an endless succession of men debating the behaviour of Whitney Houston, creating a storm of sympathy and blame. Tom Volf’s ‘Maria by Callas’ has to strip away any other voices to allow Callas’ own voice and story to be heard without commentary or debate. That never needs to happen with ‘Pavarotti’, because the film and everyone in it subscribe to the notion of heaping praise upon the male genius. This is likely not fault of Pavarotti himself, and as said before, this lack of rigour in the film may simply be because Pavarotti was a good man who did very little worth scrutinising in his life. The tone of the film though betrays that problematic bias. The great narrative we subscribe to for the straight while male genius is that of a man who rises to power, fame and influence. For female artists or those from a cultural, gender or sexual minority, it’s a narrative of struggle, criticism, attack, defence and eventual collapse. Even consider this through the lens of dramatic storytelling in film, comparing a ‘Walk The Line’ with a ‘Judy’. By essentially having nothing of note to say about its subject other than what an incredible figure he was, ‘Pavarotti’ accidentally highlights the gender bias in how we talk about genius.
There’s no thrill or tension, no clear thesis or cinematic language. It’s exactly what you expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less.
This is not to say that ‘Pavarotti’ is a bad film, only that it isn’t a particularly noteworthy one. The only real impression we get about Pavarotti is that he was a truly great opera singer and he was beloved by his peers, family and fans, but I doubt anyone going into this film didn’t know that already. It plays like an artist bio mixed with a best-of album, its perfunctory nature all the more disappointing considering how other filmmakers have begun to subvert and develop the biographical documentary form. Maybe if Ron Howard had been less in love with his subject and more willing to ask genuine questions of the man and the world he came from, this could have been a genuinely engaging and insightful film. As it is, it offers nothing new and leaves almost no impression, thoroughly unlike its legendary subject.