Oscar-winning filmmaker discusses his new documentary about the larger-than-life opera star
Sometimes, a bit of distance is what you need. Take Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of A Beautiful Mind. When he was approached to make a documentary about the opera star Luciano Pavarotti, he was by no means an expert. 'I didn't make the movie because I was a committed Pavarotti fan,' he says. 'I had nothing but respect for him and opera, but what more sparked my curiosity [was] a world to shed light on and inhabit.'
Understandably, Pavarotti's rarefied existence is like catnip to filmmakers. The Italian tenor lived a larger-than-life existence that went far beyond his global fame, brought on when he performed with Spaniards José Carreras and Plácido Domingo as The Three Tenors. While their concert on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final, and Pavarotti's recital of 'Nessun Dorma', became a signature moment, 'there are so many examples of that in his career,' says Howard.
Indeed, Howard's film Pavarotti unpacks an extraordinary life, both personally and professionally. Among his humanitarian highlights, he spent over a decade organising a series of benefit concerts, dubbed 'Pavarotti & Friends', which saw him perform alongside the likes of U2's Bono (who gives a surprisingly candid interview in the film), Sting and Lou Reed, in support of causes ranging from children in war-torn Bosnia to Angolan refugees.
Then there was his colourful private life, which Howard was keen to paint 'warts-and-all', including the scandal that enveloped the married Pavarotti when he took up with his much-younger personal assistant Nicoletta Mantovani, who later became his second wife. 'While the family was fully cooperative, it's definitely been an emotional challenge for them,' admits Howard.
Even so, the director wanted an 'ultimately celebratory' portrait of the maestro, who died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer, aged 71. 'I think that's the way people feel about him and that's the way I feel about him. Despite some choices that I think later in his life he regretted … you have to appreciate that this spirit with which he approached his life, his work, those he cared about around him, is really to be admired.'
For the 65 year-old Howard, who put Pavarotti together while he was making last year's sci-fi spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story, it adds yet another example to his neat sideline in music documentaries. Since chronicling hip-hop artist Jay Z in Made In America, Howard went on to explore The Beatles in Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years. 'I've never slowed down on my TV or movie directing,' he notes, 'but in and around it, I find it incredibly simulating and inspiring to work on a doc project.'
Now shooting his next feature, Hillbilly Elegy, starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Howard's also working on another documentary concurrently. Currently titled Rebuilding Paradise, it's a look at the wildfires that devastated Paradise, California, in 2018, and how the community looked to overcome such a tragedy. 'It's from a region where I've had a lot of family members,' he sighs. Sometimes, being up close can be exactly what you need.
Pavarotti is in cinemas on Fri 13 Jul, with a satellite Q&A for one night only and then is on release nationwide from Mon 15 Jul.