Ron Howard is not a huge music fan.
It’s a surprising fact about a director whose last three documentaries have been devoted to musicians: rapper Jay-Z in “Made in America,” the Fab Four in “The Beatles: Eight Days A Week — The Touring Years” and opera star Luciano Pavarotti in “Pavarotti,” which opens in theaters Friday, June 7. Then again, Howard has always followed his curiosity wherever it leads, whether to the space- race in “Apollo 13,” mental illness in “A Beautiful Mind” (for which he won the Oscar for best directing) or Formula One racing in “Rush.”
In “Pavarotti,” Howard tells the story of an opera singer whose flawless voice and natural charisma made him a superstar during the 1980s and helped turn an elite art form into a populist one. “Pavarotti” also deals frankly with the late singer’s personal life, featuring candid interviews with his ex-wife, his much younger widow, his children and his colleagues.
Howard, 65, spoke by phone with Newsday film critic Rafer Guzman about putting together his latest film.
How did you get involved in this movie? I’m told there was a connection to your Beatles documentary.
It starts with the producer, Nigel Sinclair, who brought the Beatles project to me originally. We had such a good experience on the Beatles that we started searching for another subject. And Nigel proposed, among others, Pavarotti. I immediately was intrigued, although I didn't know very much about him — and not a hell of a lot about opera! But I had respect for both, and curiosity.
So you’re more of a pop guy than an opera guy.
You know, I'm not much of a consumer of music. Music has, almost all my life, been connected to projects. Outside of my late teens, when I was totally into the singer-songwriters — Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, people like that. Those voices spoke to me in a really powerful way. In the years since, it sort of depends on the project. Right now I'm listening to a lot of Americana, because I'm getting ready to do "Hillbilly Elegy” [an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir]. But I continue listening to opera, and I don't have to anymore! My research is over, the movie is done.
When you’re familiarizing yourself with a subject, where do you start your research?
We did have home movies that had never been seen before. And that was probably among the first batches of footage that we all really explored. Then you start reading. And then you begin to come up with a list of who you'd like to interview. With documentaries, the interviewees really do shape the tone of the film, I have found. Their take on it becomes more important than yours.
Give me an example of somebody you felt changed the tone of the film.
I thought the family was very courageous in being willing to talk about [Pavarotti’s] foibles, and even the heartbreak, along with the qualities that they adored. Their acceptance, and their story of forgiveness, was very constructive and informative, and kind of inspiring.
How would you describe the arc of Pavarotti’s life?
There's something kind of operatic about it. He came from very modest circumstances. His father wanted to be a tenor — and was a good tenor — but couldn't make a career of it. And yet he's urged by his mother to make it his life's work. And that journey is complicated, emotionally, for him. Romance comes and goes. As I say, it’s very operatic.
Did you see any parallels between your lives or careers?
Outside of the respect for audiences and for our respective art forms — that, I related to. What was demanded of him as artist, as an opera singer, is unbelievably demanding. What I do is challenging in its own way. But on a performance level, that do-or-die execution — it's almost athletic. And I've never felt that kind of pressure, as either an actor or a director.
You bookend the film with Pavarotti being asked two questions: How he’d like to be remembered as an artist, and as a person. How would you answer those questions?
Well, from the standpoint of my creative journey and my career, I'd like to be thought of as somebody that experimented, took risks and worked in a lot of different genres. On the personal side, I'd like to be thought of as simply a good, dedicated family man.