Director Ron Howard on 'using opera to tell Pavarotti's story'

Director Ron Howard dives into the life of the world's most famous tenor in new documentary Pavarotti. He tells Laura Harding about using opera to help tell the singer's remarkable story

Nicoletta Mantovani and Luciano Pavarotti in a scene from Ron Howard's Pavarotti
Laura Harding

LUCIANO Pavarotti had a rare kind of star quality, one that made people who never cared about opera sit up and pay attention.

Through the sheer force of his talent, personality and charisma, he brought high art to the masses. This is never more apparent than in the intimacy of Ron Howard's new documentary about the tenor, which aims to show us the man behind the soaring arias.

"Pavarotti worked to try to remind the world that opera is actually popular entertainment," says the film-maker.

"That's why I wanted to include the subtitles, because when I started understanding the lyrics, I realised it's not just that they're arias, they're great songs, they're telling great stories, soulful stories.

"We found great performances from Luciano at different points in his life. We found a performance where he was roughly that age singing an aria that actually dramatised a lot of what he was going through, whether that was a moment of triumph or falling in love or sadness or despair.

"And I discovered that we could use opera as it's really meant to be, to tell the story, in this case the story of Pavarotti."

The Oscar-winning director, best known for his blockbuster films Apollo 11, A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code, has recently made a foray into music documentaries with the award-winning The Beatles: Eight Days A Week and Made In America, about Jay-Z's one-off music festival.

"What I've discovered with the documentaries, and I think audiences have discovered it, is that it's a really rich storytelling discipline and medium," says Howard.

"It's different from what I do when I'm working with scripted but not as different as I expected it to be.

"The difference is that a documentary, it sort of has to present itself to you. It has to tell you how it needs to be told. With a scripted project, you can manipulate it and control it much, much more – but it's still the same process of what can we discover about his story, based on real events, that we want to share with audiences. And, how can we do it in a way that's really entertaining, really engrossing?

"The demands of the different mediums vary a little bit but it's a similar challenge and I'm finding it a lot of fun to move back and forth between both, very fascinating and stimulating."

Howard only met Pavarotti once "very, very briefly" at a star-studded Hollywood event in the early 1980s.

"Even though there were a lot of movie stars and television stars there, when he showed up, he was *it*. It was really interesting to see."

But it wasn't Pavarotti's star power that compelled Howard to make the film.

Instead, it was the chance to reunite with the team he worked with on his Beatles documentary, something he had been keen to do for some time.

"We had a good chemistry and good fun telling that story and it was very gratifying creatively," he says.

"We wanted to find another story and the idea of Pavarotti came up and the possibility that his family might be willing to co-operate at this point in their lives.

"And one thing led to another and I felt like it was ... we could tell a story that was even more surprising because people might have heard of Pavarotti but might not know how interesting his journey was and how powerful his art form was, opera."

The film features never-before-seen footage of Pavarotti, as well as rare interviews with his family, colleagues and most famous fans, including a certain U2 frontman.

"I love Bono's interview," laughs Howard.

"He not only lets us understand why he loved Pavarotti and what their relationship was all about – and that's kind of hilarious and we had some great behind-the-scenes footage – he's also letting us know what it is to be that kind of artist, that level of artist who commits themselves, expresses themselves through their art for an entire lifetime.

"And I thought his interview was a real gift not only to Luciano's family, but to audiences, audiences who love great music."

While some critics have questioned whether the film is too soft-focused in its approach, brushing over some of the flaws of a complicated man, Howard says he let the story do the talking.

"You kind of have to let the tone present itself to you. This is not biography, it's not a piece of journalism.

"There's no voice-over, there's no narrator telling you what they think the story is about or what the themes are. You sort of have to find the footage, do the interviews and see what is the greater truth that people are telling us.

"In this case, it was that he was a remarkable individual – he was full of joy, he wanted that to be infectious, he wanted to bring joy to other people. Along the way, with his big appetites, for all kinds of things, including romance and relationships, he would make some choices, some decisions that could be very difficult, emotionally difficult, for people.

"And yet that's not what people remembered about him. In other words, that was an aspect of their relationship, maybe even a regrettable one, maybe even hurtful but it wasn't the headline.

"The headline was, 'Wow, what a remarkable individual. I'm glad I had time with him. I'm glad I had this relationship despite some of the difficulties along the way'.

"And we kept seeing that over and over again, so that became the spirit of our film."

:: Pavarotti is out now.

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