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Celebrity Charity: In ‘Pavarotti’ documentary, Ron Howard hits high notes but skimps on drama

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Celebrity Charity: In ‘Pavarotti’ documentary, Ron Howard hits high notes but skimps on drama

Celebrity Charity:

Celebrity Charity: Luciano Pavarotti performs at the People's Assembly in Peking, China, as seen in

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Luciano Pavarotti performs at the People’s Assembly in Peking, China, as seen in “Pavarotti.”

Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images

Celebrity Charity: Ron Howard's

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti” paints an intimate portrait of Luciano Pavarotti.

CBS Films

Celebrity Charity: Luciano Pavarotti prepares to make a recording in

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Luciano Pavarotti prepares to make a recording in “Pavarotti.”

CBS Films

Celebrity Charity: For

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

For “Pavarotti,” Luciano Pavarotti’s wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, supplied highly personal footage of the singer.

MARKA/Alamy Stock Photo

Celebrity Charity: In

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

In “Pavarotti,” viewers see Luciano Pavarotti meet Princess Diana and Prince Charles.

PA Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

Celebrity Charity: José Carreras (from left), Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo are seen on Jan. 6, 1998, in Paris. The Three Tenors are seen in Ron Howard's

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

José Carreras (from left), Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo are seen on Jan. 6, 1998, in Paris. The Three Tenors are seen in Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti.”

Alain Benainous/Getty Images

Celebrity Charity: Luciano Pavarotti's life is the focus of Ron Howard's documentary

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Luciano Pavarotti’s life is the focus of Ron Howard’s documentary “Pavarotti.”

CBS Films

Celebrity Charity: In

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

In “Pavarotti,” Luciano Pavarotti rehearses with Leone Magiera (right).

Decca Records

Celebrity Charity: Ron Howard examines Luciano Pavarotti's meteoric rise to fame in

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Ron Howard examines Luciano Pavarotti’s meteoric rise to fame in “Pavarotti.”

CBS Films

Celebrity Charity:

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

“Pavarotti” looks at both Luciano Pavarotti’s performing career and his life off stage.

CBS Films

Celebrity Charity: The life of Luciano Pavarotti is examined in

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

The life of Luciano Pavarotti is examined in “Pavarotti.”

CBS Films

Celebrity Charity: Ron Howard reveals a previously unseen side of Luciano Pavarotti in

Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Ron Howard reveals a previously unseen side of Luciano Pavarotti in “Pavarotti.”

CBS Films

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Celebrity Charity:
Photos: Film ‘Pavarotti’ looks at the life of an iconic performer

Luciano Pavarotti performs at the People’s Assembly in Peking, China, as seen in “Pavarotti.”

Watching “Pavarotti,” Ron Howard’s new documentary about the opera superstar, you can’t help but wonder what the story would look like as a fictionalized biopic a la “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Rocketman.”

All the elements of a rip-roaring artist’s drama are there. Childhood trauma, thanks to World War II, which forced young Luciano’s family to flee their home in Modena, Italy. A transcendent gift, which took him around the world even when he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go. And, of course, infidelity, which was long enabled but finally erupted into scandal when the aging, corpulent celebrity fell in love with his 23-year-old “assistant.”

In the measured remembrance of a documentary, the emotional highs and lows are muted. Pavarotti’s first wife, Adua Veroni, offers telling details of his early years and mature forgiveness for the pain he later caused. The drama — the human story — is largely left to the imagination, in no small part because Howard seems hesitant to fully explore it.

Did Pavarotti’s womanizing match his famous gusto for pasta and ice cream? Two long-term affairs are mentioned, and more dalliances are merely implied. Also implied are diva-esque tantrums — “If he had asked for chicken’s milk, they would have milked a chicken” — but the film focuses on the man’s humility and childlike naivete, as well as his charity work, his famous friends, his natural charisma. And his voice.

Ah, yes. That voice.

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If you’re an opera lover, or even if you’re not, “Pavarotti” will be a powerful reminder of what made the man worthy of a documentary in the first place. In archived interviews, he speaks passionately and eloquently about the art form and how its heightened, artificial storytelling is translated into capital-T Truth only in the voice of the singer, who must make all the years of training disappear into pure, fully-felt emotion.

And you hear that in the performances, from the pathos of the sad clown in “Pagliacci” to the pure joy of the first Three Tenors concert, when Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras engaged in game of vocal one-upmanship that made their rendition of “Nessun Dorma” one for the ages, often copied but never matched.

An advantage of a famous subject like Pavarotti, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2007, is the wealth of documentary footage available. We see the rotund singer riding a bike in Beijing and cooking pasta on “The Phil Donahue Show.”

Howard fills in the gaps with interviews, which include his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, and some of the men who helped make him a superstar. Speaking of superstars, Bono shows up with a fascinating account of how Pavarotti badgered him into a writing “Miss Sarajevo,” about the war in Bosnia, for a 1995 “Pavarotti and Friends” concert.

“He had turned our housekeeper into his consigliere,” Bono said. “Luciano was one of the great emotional arm-wrestlers.”

Maybe “Pavarotti” would be even more compelling if Howard had delved deeper into the contradictions and controversies. But the director does achieve the first goal on entertainment: Always leave them wanting more.

Celebrity Charity: ‘Pavarotti,’ 3.5 stars

Director: Ron Howard.

Cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Nicoletta Mantovani, Bono.

Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and a war related image.

Note: At Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square. 

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

Talk to the writer about arts and culture at kerry.lengel@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4896. Follow him at facebook.com/LengelOnTheater and twitter.com/KerryLengel.

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