Peter Ustinov remarked once of Pavarotti, “Luciano is difficult to pass at the net in tennis – even when he’s not playing”.
His appetite was so large he asked for kitchens to be added to the hotel rooms he stayed in. A man for whom the term ‘larger than life’ would have had to be invented if it didn’t exist, he sucked the oxygen out of any room he entered with his 1,000-watt smile and boyish charm.
Surviving a possibly fatal blood infection as a child filled him with an optimism about life that sat well with his devout Catholicism. He believed his voice was a gift from God. This led to much of the charity work of his later years when he became almost as famous for his philanthropy as his arias.
But Pavarotti was no saint. This balanced biopic from the great Ron Howard makes that clear. Despite his image as a family man he had extra-marital affairs throughout his life. At 60 he divorced his wife for a woman 34 years his junior. The Vatican refused to allow him marry her in a church, causing him to do so in a concert hall instead.
The fact that he had failings as a husband made his career more dramatic than it might otherwise have been. Bono makes a good point when he says that the cracks that appeared in his voice in later years made his concerts more engrossing. If his life was like an opera itself, the pain he suffered – and caused – became an endemic part of that.
Howard goes back and forth throughout that life in a non-linear manner. He makes use of excellent archival material and a plethora of interviews as well as some fabulous concert footage. The singing is so moving it may well make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
It’s a pity he didn’t feature the evocative rendition Pavarotti did of Ave Maria with the late-lamented Dolores O’Riordan. His other evergreen numbers compensate for this, especially Nessun Dorma which he sings with his friends José Carreras and Placido Domingo. This is what a lot of non-opera people associate with him, especially those football fans of World Cup 1990 who almost made an anthem out of it.
Pavarotti is a must-see film about a man who was a force of nature. A latterday Caruso, he could skip octaves for fun. He was also a brilliant interpreter of lyrics. He knew you couldn’t bluff audiences with fake emotions. Concerts, he believed, resembled chess more than poker.
One commentator compares his voice to “Heaven on earth”. And yet he said he was always a nervous wreck before performing. For luck he carried a bent nail – an Italian tradition. Asked why his Faith in God wouldn’t see him through, the old rogue replied that he kept the nail as a back-up.
I think this is what’s known as hedging one’s eschatological bets.