“I’d like to be remembered as the man who brought opera to the people,” says the late Luciano Pavarotti in the opening scene of Pavarotti, the new documentary film about his life and career. Acclaimed director Ron Howard (whose recent directorial hits include The Beatles: Eight Days a Week and Solo: A Star Wars Story) showcased the film last night with an intimate screening at New York’s iPic theater, cohosted by the Cinema Society. Admirers of the legendary Italian opera singer included Patti Smith, Keegan-Michael Key, and Martha Stewart, who all made their way to the waterside theater for a special first look.
“I’ve listened to Pavarotti thousands of times,” said Smith ahead of the screening. “I’ve learned from him, and so I’m very excited to see the film.”
True to Pavarotti’s ethos, the film captivates even those who aren’t the most well versed in classical music and opera (such as this Vogue writer). “It’s very clear from the movie that one of his most important aims was to spread the world of opera to everyone,” agreed Nicoletta Mantovani, one of the film’s producers and also Pavarotti’s widow. “Luciano really admired the fact that opera was sung in the streets by people in the old times, like pop music now. So he wanted to bring [it] back.” The movie focuses on Pavarotti’s desire to democratize the genre: During his American tours he made a point of bringing concerts to small towns in the heartland that notably lacked an opera house, and his 1977 performance of La Bohème at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House was the first opera performance to be televised live. The film also touches on Pavarotti’s famous friendship with Princess Diana and his ensuing benefit concerts. To much criticism at the time, Pavarotti’s benefits featured musical collaborations between the maestro and rock musicians like Sting and Bono.
After the film, not even an expected downpour of rain could dampen spirits as attendees dashed across the street to the after-party. Howard was in high spirits too. “It really begins with enough access and fresh material to be able to offer a new perspective,” he said, noting the support he received for the documentary’s materials from Pavarotti’s managers, colleagues, and family. “In this case, we had the cooperation of the family, which meant their interviews, which were so personal, raw, emotional, but also comprehensive in terms of helping us understand Pavarotti. We also had these amazing photographs, videos, and tapes from their archives that we could work with to give audiences a lot of moments they’d never seen before.”
R17, a rooftop lounge atop Pier 17, played host to the party, with guests abuzz in conversation about the film. Cozy fireplaces and refreshing pamplemousse spritz cocktails provided a delightful segue into the rest of the evening. Conversation and Prosecco flowed for the rest of the night, punctuated by circulating platters of bite-size avocado toast and crisped potatoes garnished with truffle aioli.
Bette Davis patted him on the butt when she decided he was a good director. Henry Fonda gave him his first books on film theory. Lee Marvin got drunk and told him stories about John Ford’s sadistic side. Vincente Minnelli taught him to be a stickler for detail. Roger Corman advised him to pursue his own creative point of view in movies, but never forget the crowd pleasers like car crashes and naked women. Andy Griffith showed him, when he was just a young ’un, how to have fun while working hard. And Yul Brynner explained that when you take a shot of vodka and bite the glass, it had better be a prop glass made of sugar.
Ron Howard grew up in Hollywood working with the giants of the entertainment industry, and it gave him a fine appreciation for giants.
That is why, even though he’s more of a sports fan than an opera aficionado, he decided to make a documentary about opera’s Sultan of Swat: Luciano Pavarotti, the King of High Cs, a man of gargantuan talent and appetite, swathed in women and Hermès scarves, who died in 2007 and is perhaps inadequately immortalized on iTunes and YouTube.
“Seeing Michael Jordan take off at the free-throw line and slam dunk was mind-blowing,” Mr. Howard said. “In the same way, it’s hard to imagine that human beings can hit these notes.”
Peter Gelb, the head of the Metropolitan Opera, said the metaphor is apt: “Unlike pop singers who use microphones, an opera singer’s voice is produced by a purely physical effort, using his entire body like a vocal athlete and producing sounds from their diaphragms.”
Mr. Pavarotti was consumed with insecurity that he might not hit the high Cs, saying, “I go to die” as he walked onstage.
Larger Than Life
Over lunch at Patsy’s Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, the 65-year-old Mr. Howard said he was fortunate with the quality of the archival footage he and the other filmmakers got. Those included a video clip of Mr. Pavarotti’s early triumph as Rodolfo in “La Bohème” in Reggio Emilia, Italy, in 1961, with the audience gasping, and interviews with the singer’s first wife, Adua, his three older daughters and two of his “secretaries,” as the long-term loves who were part of Mr. Pavarotti’s entourage were known.
There are also home movies shot by Nicoletta Mantovani, the angelic-looking young assistant who became the singer’s second wife and the mother of his youngest daughter, Alice.
“Opera’s Golden Tenor,” as Time called Mr. Pavarotti in a 1979 cover story, was a volcanic life force whose voice could give you goose bumps and make your ears ring. His range of Bs, Cs and Ds, with a romantic, gleaming timbre, was “one of those freaks of nature” that came along only once in a century, as one conductor told Time.
The singer explained that his famous connection with the audience came from imagining his voice traveling along a separate thread to each member of the audience, with their applause sending back oxygen.
Mr. Pavarotti never learned to read music, relying on his own primitive sign system of arrows and other indicators that he would write into his scores.
He wasn’t a tormented artist. The rotund Italian tenor was joyous and generous, raising money for children in war-torn places including Bosnia and Kosovo, bringing opera to the people and traveling with his own prosciutto slicer, pots, pans and kilos of tortellini and cheese.
The Met kept a buffet in the wings so he could snack between arias. His abrasive former manager, Herbert Breslin, wrote in “The King and I,” his dishy memoir written with Anne Midgette, that Mr. Pavarotti — whose weight swung between 240 and 350 — had to have gained and lost about 5,000 pounds during their years together.
“Opera singers are highly neurotic individuals who eat neurotically,” Mr. Gelb said. “It’s an impossible job. You try to hit notes, but you never know exactly what will come out.”
“Big P,” as his mentor and co-star Joan Sutherland called him, was irresistible, as the film shows. A radiant Princess Diana sat through a concert in the pouring rain for him. When Bono refused an invitation to write a song and record it with the tenor, Mr. Pavarotti made friends with Bono’s Italian housekeeper, who then pestered her boss until he succumbed.
When Ms. Mantovani told Mr. Pavarotti that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could probably not stay with him, he swept away her fears, announcing, “Until now I loved you. But from now on, I adore you.”
He was a regular guest on Johnny Carson, sang on the Grammy Awards, gave out an Oscar and collaborated with pop stars. He teamed up with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras to turn “the Three Tenors” into one of the top bands in the world. But as Mr. Breslin once told the author Manuela Hoelterhoff, one tenor was top dog: “Domingo would have to go pray in seventeen churches in Guadalajara to find that sound.” And “Seinfeld” had a running joke about forgetting who “the other guy” was.
Mr. Pavarotti’s first wife, Adua, says in the film that her former husband could be a diva: “He got used to having everything. If he had asked for chicken’s milk, they would have probably milked a chicken.”
Bono rages in the documentary against those who criticized the waning power of Mr. Pavarotti’s voice before the singer’s death: “The reason why he is great is because he has lived those songs,” adding that you can hear that “in every crack of his voice.”
Passed on ‘Star Wars’
Mr. Howard himself cannot sing, even though at age 7 he played the redheaded Winthrop Paroo in the movie version of “The Music Man,” warbling about the delights of Gary, Ind., and the Wells Fargo stagecoach.
“They put up with the fact that I could barely carry a tune,” he said. “I got the lisp down, my dad taught me the lisp, but the singing was always problematic.”
Despite his own pitchiness, Mr. Howard steeped himself in Mr. Pavarotti’s work and came up with a novel structure: to use the arias to fashion an opera about the tenor himself, with original remastered tracks at Abbey Road, the famous recording studio in London.
“We drew from 22 different operas, maybe 90 pieces of music,” the director said. “‘A Vucchella,’ about a woman being like a little flower, for when he rediscovered love. Pagliacci, the clown, when he was struggling to perform. ‘Tosca,’ when he knows he’s coming to the end.”
The film shows the opera star’s superstitious side. He kept a bent nail found in backstage scenery (or planted there by his assistants) in his pocket for luck. Mr. Breslin revealed that Mr. Pavarotti had two other superstitions: He banned the color purple and was skittish about the number 17, preferring to spend the 17th of any month in bed.
Mr. Gelb recalled that once, in the 1980s, Mr. Pavarotti got out of the hospital and refused to take off his green plastic hospital bracelet because he thought it would be unlucky, even though Mr. Gelb, who was at the Met filming the singer’s performance for TV, told him the bracelet could be seen on camera.
“I used to have a lucky hat,” Mr. Howard recalled about a plaid newsboy cap a mentor gave him. But after he lost it, he stuck with one good luck charm:
“My wife”— Cheryl, a writer — “has been in everything I’ve ever done that’s not a documentary.”
The Los Angeles Times once said that Ron Howard’s face reflected “mom and apple pie, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, a home run in the ninth and a basket at the buzzer.”
He is such an American icon that Andy Warhol asked to do twin portraits of him: one with the mustache he had in the mid-’80s and one after he shaved it off. He refused to shave off the ’stache for Mr. Warhol but did it spontaneously later, going into an airport restroom after he’d had a couple drinks to mourn the poor box office of “Cry-Baby,” the 1990 John Waters movie that his film company, Imagine Entertainment, produced.
If there was a phrenology skull mapping the cultural touchstones for baby boomers, Mr. Howard would be all over it, with “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,’’ “General Electric Theater” presented by Ronald Reagan, “The Twilight Zone,” “The Waltons,” “Dennis the Menace,” “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” “Gomer Pyle,” “I Spy” and “Happy Days.”
He might have been an even greater part of the cultural landscape if he had been more excited when George Lucas, who directed him in the 1973 classic “American Graffiti,” told him about his next idea.
“George tried to explain it as a kind of Flash Gordon movie but with better special effects,” Mr. Howard said. “And I thought it sounded like a pretty terrible idea. Sci-fi was really a B-minus genre. I liked ‘Planet of the Apes’ all right but I couldn’t possibly imagine what he was trying to do.”
By the time he realized “Star Wars” was a hot project, he couldn’t even get an audition.
Despite his unique résumé, he still identifies with the comment of his friend, the late, great writer William Goldman, who once confessed to Mr. Howard, “I feel like I got in on a pass.”
He has no hobbies and said if he had a free Saturday afternoon, he would work. Movies, he said, give you a Walter Mitty portal to step into wondrous worlds.
For “Splash,” he got to scuba dive to shoot underwater scenes with Daryl Hannah’s mermaid. For “Apollo 13,” he got to try a weightlessness exercise. For “Rush,” he explored the world of Formula One.
“I’m getting paid to have an adventure,” he said.
Escaping ‘Dopey Opie’
It seems impossible that Mr. Howard, the patriarch of a three-generation show business family, can be so nice and normal, especially because he started out-earning his father at age 8 and, by his own calculation, made more than the Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax by the time he was 11.
His father and mother fell in love as teenagers in Oklahoma. They got married in Kentucky, when they were working with a children’s theater troupe. His mother wore her Cinderella dress, and the dwarves from “Snow White” were the groomsmen. “There were only four dwarves,” Mr. Howard said. “It was a very low-budget production.”
His father, Rance, was a Depression-era Oklahoma farm boy. After Ron was born, he moved to Los Angeles to be a writer and actor. (He played the role of a farmer in “Chinatown,” and Ron Howard boasted that his dad once held the Guinness Book of World Records title for playing more men of the cloth than any other character actor.)
When Ron hit it big as Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” and Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” — Eddie Murphy called him “Opie Cunningham” on “Saturday Night Live” — Rance Howard continued to use his own paychecks to support the family, knowing that it could warp his son if he had the financial whip hand.
Following his parents’ lead, Ron Howard fell in love with his wife of 44 years, Cheryl, when he was a teenager. They live in a bucolic part of Connecticut and have four grown children, including two daughters who have followed him into acting.
At a Directors Guild of America gala a few years ago, Bryce Dallas Howard said that her father had been underestimated at times because he was dorky and earnest, “not the typical example of the edgy auteur filmmakers who earn instant cool cred in this business.”
How did he never rebel?
“You know, my version of rebellion, as I think about it, was this,” Mr. Howard said. “Early on, I could see what people’s expectations for my behavior would be and I did not want to fulfill their cliché sense of what a kid actor or a teen actor would be. And also, I’m an introvert.
“Kids would taunt me. Burbank is a working-class town. I got bullied and stuff in school because I was ‘Dopey Opie.’ I went to public school when I wasn’t doing the show. And it was pretty tough. I became very good at wrestling.”
As he grew older, he would get teased in bars and clubs. Guys would demand to know if he was going to buy a Corvette. “I got a white Volkswagen Beetle,” he said. “It was my way of saying, ‘Don’t put me in that other box.’” He said that the “very rooted, earthy, common sense approach” of his father kept him “sane and solid.”
Brian Grazer, who has what he calls “the longest partnership in Hollywood history” with Mr. Howard, met him in 1979 and later formed Imagine. In 1982, they produced the movie “Night Shift” with Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton about a proper, introverted guy who teams up with a jangly, extroverted guy. It echoes their own odd-couple relationship.
Mr. Grazer soon discovered Mr. Howard’s stubborn streak. He would beg Mr. Howard to talk at meetings with studio chiefs to no avail. But Mr. Howard had “a sixth sense,” Mr. Grazer said, about “what was transpiring” in a deal and who was “a scumbag.”
Mr. Grazer said that going full-bore into documentaries makes perfect sense for Imagine given that many of their company’s critical successes — “Apollo 13,” “Frost/Nixon,” “8 Mile,” “Friday Night Lights,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Rush” — were true stories or inspired by true stories.
When Mr. Howard directed “Apollo 13,” he said that there was only one negative card written by an audience member after a test screening.
“Horrible!’’ a man wrote. “They would never survive!!!!”
“Of course, he didn’t know it was a true story,” Mr. Howard said, laughing. “So he thought it was sentimental crap. Well, I realized then and there, that’s one of the reasons you do a true story. Because often the behaviors and outcomes are more remarkable.”
The ‘Militant Middle’
Mr. Howard has already directed two music documentaries. The first, “Made in America,” about Jay-Z’s festival in 2012 in Philadelphia, he agreed to do on a whim because his family was out of town. Then he made “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” in 2016.
“I was talking to Paul,” the director recalled, “and he said, ‘Look, I know you have final cut. The only thing is, so much has been made about the difficulties that we had later and they still resonate with me. But it’s only been in the last couple of years that, when I see a photograph of John and I, I just think, man, we were a great team. And we were great friends.’”
Mr. Howard, who is just as interested in ordinary people as extraordinary ones, is making a movie of J.D. Vance’s best seller, “Hillbilly Elegy,” for Netflix. It will star Amy Adams and Glenn Close, and filming is to begin this month in Georgia.
“We see Governor Kemp’s bill as a direct attack on women’s rights,” their statement read in part.
About his interest in Mr. Vance’s book, Mr. Howard told me, “I am very concerned about this huge schism and mistrust in the country.”
As the director of the 1999 satire “EDtv,” with Matthew McConaughey as a guy who has a TV camera on him 24/7, Mr. Howard must see some parallels with the former reality star in the White House.
“I just feel that moving down this road where demagogy keeps succeeding is a real threat to our stability, our footing,” he said. “You don’t want the highest office in the land to be a great financial opportunity.”
He also fears we may now be addicted to operatic presidents.
“I don’t like the idea of celebrity presidents,” he said. “If I could wave a wand, there’d be two new rules: First, you’d have to have served in elected office to be eligible. The other thing is all campaign ads should be reduced to one thing: the candidate in front of a flag in a close-up talking to the camera. No music, no cut-aways, no sad kids, no angry moms.”
He got Fox News’s attention last year when he tweeted: “Honest question to #MAGA minders. When was America at its greatest? Can you tell me an era that reflects the ‘Again’ that you hope we return to?”
But the man who does not like to be typecast in his career is the same way about politics. He is excited by some of the new Democratic faces but said, “Mostly what I want is a common-sense problem solver who has some experience. I don’t care what party they’re from. I’d vote for a Republican if it was the right person.
“I keep wishing there was a third party, I keep calling it a militant middle.”
Mr. Howard is also working on a documentary about the aftermath of the wildfire that consumed Paradise, Calif.
“My mother-in-law used to live in Paradise and I have a lot of relatives and in-laws in Redding, California, nearby,” he said. “And suddenly there was this fire that wiped out a town. It’s a survival story. Will the town make it? Will the individuals within the town choose to keep the community together? What does that kind of devastation really feel like?”
Sara Bernstein, an executive vice president in Imagine’s new documentary unit, said that she and Mr. Howard went to film in Paradise soon after the fire.
“People were walking through the rubble of their burned-down homes, their lives destroyed, and yet they were so excited to see Ron Howard in their town,” she said. “They would shout out, ‘Hi, Opie!’ and then pour their hearts out to him on camera. And it really hit me that for the people of Paradise, who have lost every tangible memory of their life, Ron represents a living memory to them. They were not just talking to a world-famous director, but they were opening up to an old friend. And that’s the magic of Ron Howard.”