Ron Howard has tackled documentaries on Jay-Z (Made in America) and the Beatles (Eight Days a Week). For his latest project, the Oscar-winning director turns to opera and Luciano Pavarotti, one of the greatest tenors of all time. As the movie reveals, Pavarotti’s own life was often as dramatic as the stories he sung about. Pavarotti opens in limited release on Friday (June 7) via CBS Films. Financed by UMG’s Polygram Entertainment and Decca Records, the film will be accompanied by Decca’s Pavarotti: Music From The Motion Picture, as well as a new 3-CD best of collection titled Pavarotti: The Greatest Hits.
Howard talked with Billboard about the film and the tenor, who died in 2007, following an intimate screening at Creative Artists Agency.
How familiar were you with opera before you started the documentary?
I’d seen some performances, listened, was aware, never really knew the plots particularly.
That’s significant because you put in the plot line of each opera so people not well versed in opera will understand what the performers are singing about.
I did want this to be an opportunity for someone like me who has an appreciation and respect and curiously, but has never really had that opportunity to really begin to grasp it. And I thought that you’d respect and understand Pavarotti so much more if you understood what it takes to actually achieve what he could achieve and what his colleagues and peers could achieve. It’s almost an athletic achievement and I also did it to use the drama and the thematics of those arias to help tell his story. It became clear to me early that we could almost create an opera about Pavarotti by using those arias. So that was an organizing principle for me.
What was the most fascinating thing you learned about him?
I think the lesson is when you attack your life with that kind of joy, full on commitment, to just live it, you may create some turbulence and some turmoil in your life, but having that kind of ambition for not only your work, not only your art, but also your life, I think that’s a worthy lesson that he’s giving us.
You don’t bring in that he was seriously ill with tetanus as a boy until late in the film, but from the first time we see him, there’s a gusto that he exhibits in part due to that brush with death.
And then he explains it. We played with the structure of all that a great deal. That’s part of what’s interesting about documentaries, you don’t have a script. You have sort of buckets of organized information and our story became a little bit more engrossing as we parsed out some of that information even from his youth.
You address his infidelities and leaving his wife for a much younger woman without judgment, but also show the consequences, including the temporary estrangement from his daughters, but bring it back around to the reconciliation because of his granddaughter. There’s a redemption story there.
Yes, and the fact that the family was supportive, given the controversy, I thought it spoke well for him. In all of our interviews, and I wasn’t there for all of them, but the ones I was there for and the others that we collected, no one would speak ill. They would acknowledge the little things. They would says, “Well, he was disappointing here, he was dishonest there. He was very demanding,” but they would always qualify it because they really loved him.
Now that you’re directed documentaries about Jay-Z, the Beatles and Pavarotti— artists at the absolute top of their field— what is the common thread that you found that runs through them?
Excellence, and also in addition to their artistry, what do they do with what that has yielded? How do they get there and then what? I think that’s what’s interesting about Pavarotti. He reached that stagnant period and then I think through Princess Diana and the discovery of what it could mean to really be of service, through everything that he had gained, it really energized him for the last 15 years or so of his life.
What is your favorite scene in the movie?
The Three Tenors is just kind of impossible to beat because they’re there for a reason. They’re there for Jose [Carreras], and they’re so enjoying it and there’s probably something a little solitary about being a tenor in a way. It’s demanding and, sure you’re a part of a company, but I think the fact that the three of them could kind of strut their stuff together… Look, they kept touring, it wasn’t just for the money, they were loving it.
Their joy at performing and trying to top each other in that scene is worth the price of admission.
I love that late in [Pavarotti’s] life on his  retirement tour, [Placido] Domingo was conducting and it’s Tosca and the audience won’t stop applauding and he’s even turning his back and they just kept going and going and going. That was very moving to me.