You don’t need to know an aria from a canzonetta — or, for that matter, even know that they’re operatic terms — to appreciate the documentary “Pavarotti.” That’s because director Ron Howard is more interested in the performer Luciano Pavarotti than in his performances.
The legendary tenor was a compendium of contradictions. A bear of a man — in pictures taken during his early 20s, he could pass for an NFL defensive lineman — with a voice powerful enough to penetrate steel, he wowed people with his humility.
A dedicated family man shown in home movies frolicking with his children, he also was the subject of tabloid-fodder romances with women barely old enough to qualify as women. He was an enthusiastic world traveler, but so loved the pasta from his Italian homeland that he would pack a dozen suitcases with food.
One of the most striking contradictions was his body language. In public, he beamed a contagious, carefree smile. But privately, he suffered. Growing up during World War II, he tells of having to step over dead bodies when he went outside. He fathered twin children, one of whom was stillborn.
“His life was an opera,” an observer notes, to which a daughter adds that he rarely was cast in happy roles. “He always died at the end of the opera,” she says.
We never see or hear Howard on screen, but it’s clear that he leveraged the likability he exuded as a young actor in “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days” in tapping sources for this film.
Pavarotti’s domestic life was anything but tranquil: After 34 years of marriage punctuated by affairs, he divorced his wife to marry his young personal assistant and fathered a child the same age as his grandchild. One of his three daughters refused to have anything to do with him after that. Somehow, the affable Howard convinced all of them to be interviewed on camera. (Not at the same time, of course; not even Opie could pull that off.)
The movie doesn’t ignore Pavarotti’s magnificent singing. It is, after all, the reason for his fame. But opera buffs hoping for two hours of digitally remastered solos blasting from a wall of Dolby speakers will be disappointed. As “Pavarotti” demonstrates, while the music was mesmerizing, so was the man.