After a highly successful acting career in his youth, Ron Howard, 65, has long been established as one of Hollywood's most successful directors. Films such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, which won him the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 2002, are on his CV. But only recently has Howard turned to documentary features, with 2013's Jay Z film Made in America and his 2016 film about The Beatles, Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years.
"I find it incredibly stimulating and inspiring to work on a doc project," he explains, when we meet to talk about the subject of his latest documentary, the larger-than-life Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
Simply titled Pavarotti, the project was brought to Howard by producer Nigel Sinclair, who also gave him the idea for Eight Days A Week. Howard says he was hooked by Pavarotti's life, describing it as "a world to shed light on". He says he recalls seeing Pavarotti "very fleetingly" at a big event in the 1980s, when Howard was only getting into the swing of his career as a director. "It was a Golden Globes party, or something like that. There were movie stars, television stars, but when he came in the room, he was it," he says.
That was true, Howard says, even before Pavarotti shot to global fame after his rendition of Nessun Dorma at the 1990 football World Cup in Italy. The singer performed alongside Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo as The Three Tenors, to create a remarkable moment in popular culture, as their record, The Three Tenors in Concert, becoming the bestselling classical album of all time.
But the filmmaker doesn't treat this as his main focus. "He wasn't the agent of that. It was just something that happened. And there are so many examples of that in his career. We were focusing on events where he had to make a decision," he says.
Howard's tour through the life of Pavarotti, who died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer, aged 71, will be illuminating for the casual fan who may only be aware of his work with The Three Tenors. In more than a decade, Pavarotti staged a series of concerts in Modena, Italy, called Pavarotti and Friends, to aid children living amid conflict in Bosnia, even getting the likes of Bono to perform with him. The U2 lead singer features in the documentary in a surprisingly revealing interview.
Howard was particularly taken with Bono's contribution. "It's stunning because it reflects his real desire to let us understand more about Luciano and his work and his place in our global society," he says. "That's one of the reasons he's so good in it. He's not promoting himself. He's not selling an idea, or his philanthropic organisations. He's simply conveying what Pavarotti meant to him and clearly he loved the man and wanted to help us share that story and understand what it was he admired and loved."
But while this might all sound like a love-in for Luciano, Howard was not afraid to deliver what he calls "a warts-and-all" portrait of the singer. That is particularly evident when it comes to Pavarotti's turbulent personal life. He was married with three daughters, but began an affair with his former personal assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani, who would become his second wife. The scandal caused outrage in his homeland.
Howard says Pavarotti's family were co-operative during the making of his film. "It's definitely been an emotional challenge for them," he says. "It does bring up old feelings mostly wonderful and some painful. On the one hand, they've been supportive and they certainly want his life and legacy to be remembered broadly across audiences and platforms. But they've had to acknowledge that some sections of the movie are difficult for them to watch, whether it's because it's deeply emotional or brings up an old hurt."
Likening it to when he made Rush – and consequently began watching more Formula One racing – Howard's musical tastes have changed since he made Pavarotti. "I've always listened to opera, I've always appreciated it," he says. "But I certainly learnt a lot working on the film, and I noticed that I'm playing it more in my car or when I'm puttering around than I ever, ever did before."
His says he hopes the documentary will do the same for audiences. While Howard says he has returned feature films and is directing Hillbilly Elegy, starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, he is also working on his first non-music documentary, Rebuilding Paradise, about the wildfires that devastated California in 2018.
But what about a Pavarotti feature film. Could he imagine directing a biopic of the artist? "I have thought about it," he says. But could he ever find an suitable actor to play the Italian? "I think it would be damned difficult!"
Pavarotti is in cinemas across the UAE now