Music documentary

Ron Howard’s latest musical documentary highlights opera superstar Pavarotti

Inspired by his friends Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and the late Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard entered the world of musical documentaries. In 2013 he directed Jay-Z’s concert documentary “Made in America” ​​and in 2016 he chronicled the most famous rock band in history in “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years ”.

Now he’s made one about the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. “Pavarotti,” which opens Friday, is a comprehensive look at the singer’s lyrical life and unprecedented artistry, using footage from concerts, home movies and new interviews with family members and artists. showbiz colleagues like Bono, who was funnily twisted into writing a collaboration song. for U2 and Pavarotti in 1995.

Howard hasn’t stopped making scripted feature films – his next film is an adaptation of the 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close – but he’s taking documentaries even more seriously. Imagine Entertainment, his production company with Brian Grazer, recently launched an entire division dedicated to the art form, which Howard says feeds and stimulates his other directing work.

We spoke with him about exploring the world of opera, why Pavarotti was making good dramas, and the quality of singers like Michael Jordan. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ron Howard plunges into music with “Pavarotti”, his latest cinematic adventure.

(Christopher Smith / Invision / AP)

Opera seems more difficult to sell than The Beatles.

[Laughs] Well, I wouldn’t have called myself a fan. I have an appreciation. But also, a very early premise really started when I started reading the lyrics and the synopsis of the operas. I started saying, “I think if we choose the right tune and a performance where he’s the age of something he’s experiencing, we can help tell the story through his performances. I thought that would help me as a storyteller and engage audiences as well, and allow them to recognize, you know, he is popular entertainment – this is about the human experience. There’s that period where he’s a little uncomfortable and we look like Pagliacci’s sad clown – I mean, of course he’s playing it. But I have the impression that he understands.

What led you to this phase of musical documentaries?

“Made in America” ​​was truly a lark. Brian Grazer had a relationship with Jay-Z and Steve Stout, who was the producer of the event, and wanted to cover it backstage. There were about two weeks to go, and that was the perfect time for me – I was in post-production on “Rush” at the time and I could just go cover it over the weekend. And I just jumped in with that and hung my hat on a point of view that we should approach it like a Robert Altman movie, like “Nashville”. Let’s talk about the story and find the structure later.

And I really enjoyed it. But I felt that at least we were going to have some great music to keep people entertained. And I certainly felt that with The Beatles – although I was terrified to bring it up. I did it casually at first, and thought, I’m going to meet Paul and Ringo, and that’ll be cool. And then all of a sudden when I realized what that meant to people and started watching online how everyone was reacting, I felt that pressure. But again, I knew we had the music. With Pavarotti, although the music wouldn’t be as popular, I knew it was great, and I knew enough to know that these performances could be really fascinating to watch.

Did you know a lot about his life before you tackled this?

No. It was really the same team that made the Beatles documentary: Nigel Sinclair, the producer, Paul Crowder, the editor, and Mark Monroe, the producer-writer. We had such a good chemistry that we wanted to find another subject. So Nigel, who’s made a lot of great music documentaries, said, “What about Pavarotti? So I started reading chapters in books and articles, and we got a few moments of performance. It’s an interesting life; it is a relatable life. As rarefied as his work was, as an individual and as a spirit, there was something to celebrate – and yet there were also weaknesses and missteps along the way, so there was a very good drama. It was sort of an opera, his life. In fact, if I were a reporter who could meet him today, or interview him for his own documentary, I think I would probably say, “How much do you think the narrative twists of operas that you have so well-known people could have influenced your decision-making and your philosophy? Because his life has had a lot of great swings.

Obviously, you need to come up with an interesting topic, but it also needs to be something where you have compelling images and material.

Well, he was incredibly charismatic and telegenic, and he became a celebrity in a time when he was covered all the time. We already knew there was this big glamorous Princess Diana streak, the concert in the park in the rain with all these people. We didn’t realize this was sort of a pivotal point in his life – it’s something we discerned later, as we were just looking at timelines and editing and watching scenes, and also getting feedback. of our interviews.

The interviews, I found, really set the tone for these kinds of films. If you’re not going to be like Michael Moore and kind of tell the documentary – if you let the interviews and the characters and the footage tell the story, then you really depend on what you can learn, what people actually say.

What this documentary helped land for me is that these people are truly Olympians.

I share that completely. The first time I figured it out and heard some of the singers talk about what it takes to hit those grades, and thinking about the six years he’s spent training, I thought, well , it’s kind of like when you first saw that commercial where Michael Jordan took off from the free throw line and slammed a dunk. It was like: I didn’t know human beings could actually do this. This is how you feel what they are capable of accomplishing – and yet express an idea, a feeling, an emotion.

How is making a documentary rewarding compared to making a feature film?

It’s an exploration with a small group of very interesting people. And while there is an ongoing office that is open, that researchers research, and the editor edits, there is this gathering going on. That’s what a lot of my director friends kept telling me: you can do it, and it’s almost refreshing. You come back to that other story that is also close to your heart, and then you come back to the one that has all the pressure of deadlines, the big budget, and the stress. You can also borrow it. For me, as a storyteller and director at this point, creative problem-solving is a little different, and yet the goals are very similar. Plus, I love the shot. I love people who are dedicated to documentaries, and I love conversations, whether it’s the initial conversations, the research conversations, or I’m there for the interviews. I’m not a good interviewer because I’m not tough enough [laughs].

Who did the interviews about it?

I made some. But even when I do them, either Mark Monroe or Paul Crowder attend. [Monroe] is a very good interviewer – he has done a lot. My approach is just to be as nice as possible, which works pretty well. My daughter, Bryce, is currently making a documentary on fatherhood. It’s just called “dads”. She interviewed me, and, man, she made me emotional – and that never happens to me in an interview, but she was my daughter!

Did that exercise of sifting through someone’s life and determining their heritage make you think of your own heritage?

No. Because luckily my life is controversial – pretty much – and I think no one is ever going to need to make a documentary or scripted movie about my life. And it suits me wonderfully [laughs].

You said you would like to ask Pavarotti if his art has influenced his life. Do you feel like this has been the case for you?

Yeah I think so. When you constantly think about the themes, ideas, and choices that the characters make, and why they make them, I think that comes with a constant reassessment of your own problem-solving process. Years ago I started saying to my kids, when they are at a crossroads, “If you were sitting there watching a movie or a TV show and the character is at a crossroads? paths where you find yourself now, what are you rooted for? “It’s simplistic, but it’s worth adding to the litmus test. If we’re lucky, we’ve got the agency. And it’s important, I think, to exercise that with awareness and awareness.

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