At first glance, archetypal American director Ron Howard does not seem the ideal candidate to make a documentary on Italy’s international operatic sensation, the man with the voice from God, Luciano Pavarotti.
Initial impressions, however, can be deceptive, and Howard turns out to be a natural choice to direct the excellent “Pavarotti,” a warm, emotional and completely involving film about the celebrated tenor.
If nothing else, after a career that started as a child star on a hit TV show and came to include a raft of crowd-pleasing movies, if Howard does not understand the nature of mass popularity, no one does.
And Pavarotti, who died in 2007 at age 71, was celebrated like no tenor since Enrico Caruso, accounting for more than 100 million albums sold, including sales of “The Three Tenors,” the top-selling classical disc ever.
More than that, Howard has directed music documentaries before (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years”) and as a celebrity in his own right has the kind of clout that likely helped in getting access to the wide variety of on-screen voices — 53 new interviews in total — that is one of “Pavarotti’s” strengths.
These include the singer’s first wife, Adua Veroni, and three adult daughters, Cristina, Lorenza and Giuliana (none of whom had talked on camera before), as well as his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, whose relationship with the first family has not always been amicable.
Also on camera are celebrated fellow musicians including Lang Lang, Zubin Mehta, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, as well as Bono, one of the pop singers Pavarotti collaborated with late in his career.
In one of the film’s most memorable clips, the U2 frontman calls the singer, with a mixture of admiration and resignation, “one of the great emotional arm wrestlers.”
Blessed with a thorough research team, Howard has also rounded up a range of fascinating performance footage from earlier in Pavarotti’s career, some of which is quite startling.
In fact, the director and screenwriter Mark Monroe have chosen to start “Pavarotti” with a truly remarkable, previously unseen clip, shot by flutist Andrea Griminelli in Brazil in 1995.
It shows Pavarotti making what was in effect a pilgrimage to the ornate opera house in Manaus, a city surrounded by the jungles of the Amazon, breaking into a brief snatch of a Neapolitan song just for himself and perhaps to commune with the spirit of Caruso, who had sung there a century earlier.
If “Pavarotti” tells you anything about the man, it’s that that is what he was like: boyish, impulsive, a genuine enthusiast who combined artistry and artlessness in a way that was difficult to resist.
Though his father was an amateur tenor (“He had a better voice,” the son insists), Pavarotti started as a schoolteacher before the nature of his gift was recognized and his professional career began.
The tenor’s first international success was in 1963 when he was a last-minute substitute for Giuseppe Di Stefano as Rudolfo in “La Bohème” at London’s Covent Garden.
In the same year, Pavarotti made the connection that cemented his career, teaming with the legendary soprano Joan Sutherland, a bel canto specialist whom he credits with teaching him the fine points of breath control.
In interview segments, often conducted by second wife Mantovani, the tenor is fascinating when he talks about his voice, which he calls “the prima donna of my body.”
As Pavarotti’s international career blossomed, his professional and personal lives inevitably diverged, though the singer tried to stay connected to his home in Modena by traveling with suitcases of his favorite foods.
Among the film’s strongest interviews (because of the unexpected insights they provide) are those with less-well-known people such as singer Madelyn Renee, Pavarotti’s personal assistant and later his mistress, and the singer’s fierce manager Herbert Breslin, who delighted in his reputation as “one of the most hated people in the opera business.”
Though hard-core opera fans did not necessarily approve, Pavarotti increasingly took on stadium recitals, in which his natural warmth and feeling for people managed to connect him to the most massive audiences.
This led to the third stage of the tenor’s career, his collaboration with pop icons such as Bono in concerts for charity. Bono’s description of how Pavarotti sweet-talked his housekeeper to gain access to him is particularly charming.
Not surprisingly, “Pavarotti” features numerous arias, and though Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” a personal favorite, is sung a lot, the most moving segment we hear is Cavaradossi’s wrenching final aria in the composer’s “Tosca,” sung when the tenor himself was coming to grips with his own mortality.
When Pavarotti dies at this film’s end, we take it as though we’ve lost a friend. In the final analysis, it was the man’s supreme gift to make us feel as if we had.
Rating: PG-13 for brief, strong language and a war-related image
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes