The best part of Ron Howard’s long-winded and fitfully moving “Pavarotti” occurs at the beginning with footage from 1995 of the world-famous tenor — who died in 2007, at 71 — visiting an opera house built in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The legend has it that Enrico Caruso had performed there 100 years before.
Shades of “Fitzcarraldo”! Unusually thoughtful, even melancholy, Pavarotti booms out an aria to an audience of barely a dozen.
The documentary, which opens at the Coolidge Corner on June 7, will have a special one-night screening on June 4 at 7 p.m. Venues include Fenway, Assembly Row, and South Bay Center. A video introduction by the director precedes the screening.
Some other moments in the film approach the candor of that moment, such as an interview conducted late in Pavarotti’s life by his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani. She asks him how he would like to be remembered in 100 years. The thought seems to darken his mood, and he says he wants to be remembered as someone who brought opera to the people. “But what about Luciano Pavarotti the man?” Mantovani insists.
Perhaps we’ll have to wait 100 years to find out. Rarely does Howard gain insight into the soul of a person who was almost consumed by celebrity. The director shies away from looking too deeply and comes up with earnest hagiography padded with platitudes about art and gushy testimonials from family, friends, colleagues, and business associates.
We do get up close and personal with Pavarotti hitting his high Cs as Howard includes many close-ups drawn from archival footage of his concerts. His face fills the big screen like a lunar landscape. But his childhood growing up during World War II in Italy gets little play, though when he briefly mentions it Howard includes a photo of a Nazi atrocity (it’s one of the reasons the film has a PG-13 rating).
And only toward the end of the film, when the 60-something Pavarotti leaves his long-suffering wife and daughters to marry his 20-something assistant, Mantovani, does it hint that his big appetite didn’t include just pasta. In general, his dealings with women seem apologetically patriarchal. He woos them with his macho verve and genuinely generous spirit, and they end up answering his fan mail and packing his suitcases.
Howard is more attentive to the accusations that Pavarotti dumbed down opera in order to pander to the masses. But as can be seen in such films as “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000), and “Parenthood” (1989) (though not in 1999’s ambitious “Edtv” or 1995’s accomplished “Apollo 13”) Howard is no stranger to bad taste and schmaltz. He seems to embrace the hamminess of the crowd-pleasing “The Three Tenors” (Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras touring together). But he does capture, perhaps unintentionally, the awkwardness of some of the “Pavarotti and Friends” charity tours from 1992 to 2003. Pop stars like Sting, Michael Bolton, and Meat Loaf join the maestro, looking like they stumbled onstage in the dream scene from Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972).
Still, the exuberance and earthy soulfulness of Pavarotti at his best sometimes shine through. His performance with U2 of their song “Miss Sarajevo” in a benefit concert for victims of the Bosnian war seems like it shouldn’t work, but his voice soars with passion and pathos. And his famous rendition of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, seen by millions on TV, receives a thunderous ovation.
In fact, according to the book “Pavarotti Seen Up Close” by the star’s conductor and pianist Leone Magiera, he was lip-synching from a recording of the song he had made earlier. He was too weak from pancreatic cancer to sing on stage. It was his last performance before he died the following year, and regardless of the circumstances, the aria aches with the regret and dread of a man face-to-face with his mortality.
“I wish I was a good husband and father and friend,” he says in answer to Mantovani’s earlier question, “What about Pavarotti the man?” To learn more about that Pavarotti, and not the myth, we need a better documentary.
Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Mark Monroe. At Coolidge Corner. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (brief strong language and a war-related image).
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.