Ron Howard has won two Academy Awards. He has directed smash hits such as Cocoon and The Da Vinci Code. Many years ago, he starred as Richie Cunningham in the enormously popular sitcom Happy Days. Few Hollywood folk have careers to compare.
Yet he is still a little underappreciated. Despite directing such fine films as Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, Rush, Cocoon and The Paper, his name is rarely listed among the auteurs who matter. He does not have fan-boys the way Martin Scorsese has fan-boys. Just look at that list of movies above (never mind The Da Vinci Code). That's a lot of very good, very popular cinema. He deserves to feel cheated.
"Many years ago, after Sunset Boulevard became a musical, I had the opportunity to meet Billy Wilder, " he tells me. "I told him I had gone back and watched the film. What a remarkable achievement it was. It holds up so well. He sighed and said in his Viennese accent: 'Suddenly everyone likes that one.' I was made aware then that a lot of films we think classics underwhelmed when they came out."
Ah, contemporary assessment can be such a fickle thing. As he prepares for his his new documentary on Luciano Pavarotti to hit the big screen, Howard can ponder a career filled with more ups than downs. Maybe, the problem is that he won't settle into a genre. More than 40 years ago, as Happy Days bubbled, a career as a popular child actor behind him, he directed the road movie Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman's skid-row studio. Splash from 1984 was a comedy. Willow from 1988 was a fantasy. Is eclecticism the only theme?
"I think that is the common theme," he says. "But I always look at things from a character standpoint. Outside of the Dan Brown adaptations – which are about the act of discovery – I am always fascinated, whether it's The Grinch or Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy, which I am doing now – in how characters are challenged and tested."
In recent years, he's taken that exploration to documentary. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week from 2016 reminded us that The Beatles were briefly an electrifying live act. Pavarotti investigates the great Italian tenor who, like Caruso before him, crossed from the opera auditorium to the concert hall and on to superstardom. Enthusiasts knew about his turn in Franco Zeffirelli's famous La Bohème at La Scala. Everybody knows about his bellowing out of Nessun Dorma at the 1990 World Cup. The massive body and the massive voice were emblems of an era in both high and mass entertainment.
Many surviving family members talk to Howard for the film. There is still regret about his affairs and his divorce from (and apparently very tolerant) first wife, but nobody seems bitter, nobody seems spiteful.
“That was the surprise,” Howard says. “We had no idea what people would say and how they would say it. They were all in separate rooms. Out of the 53 interviews that we did, the resounding consistency was that the scales flipped to the positive. Even if they’d been hurt. No one felt they’d been damaged by somebody who was cruel or who intended to be hurtful. The family gave us a pretty good lesson in understanding and about giving forgiveness without forgetting.”
Among the most entertaining interviews in the film is that with our old friend Bono.
“It was a fantastic interview,” he says. “I hope we can find a way to publish the whole thing. What it said about Bono himself as an artist was vital. We learn about what he can continue to do with his career. It was a great gift for Luciano and his family.”
Bono is amusing about how Pavarotti got him to colloborate on what would become Miss Sarajevo, The opera singer rang Bono’s house and got the housekeeper, who turned out to be Italian. They struck up a strategic relationship, and he kept pressing her to make sure the recording with Bono happened.
“That was fantastic!” Howard says. “And the footage they provided was excellent. Bono said Luciano was an emotional arm wrestler. ‘He’d break your f**king arm.’ That was great.”
When I note that only Bono is allowed to swear in the film, Howard cackles gleefully. His manner seems scarcely to have changed since he was bursting around the set of Happy Days in the 1970s. Indeed, it hasn’t changed that much since, 10 years earlier, he was a child star in The Andy Griffith Show. He still, at 65, has the ingenuous enthusiasm of an all-American kid.
Just hear him rave about the restoration job they did on the older footage for Pavarotti.
“It’s not just the early 1960s video that we did work on. It was also the sound,” he says. “As we did on Eight Days a Week with the Beatles, we could restore and maximise tracks. We wanted to really give audiences the full experience. If they were opera fans it would add to their collection. If you were being introduced it was a good introduction.”
Now, this is interesting. Howard is currently taking a break from shooting Hillbilly Elegy in Georgia. Based on a memoir by JD Vance, the movie stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close in a tale of growing up poor in an overlooked America. Made for Netflix, Hillbilly Elegy will spend most of its life as home entertainment. Yet it sounds as if he is still committed to audiences and the theatrical experience.
“Theatrical exposure for drama in particular – scripted or documentary of narrative – is becoming more limited,” he admits. “I am thrilled Hillbilly Elegy will get a theatrical release. I am thrilled that, with Pavarotti, people will get a chance to see it in the theatre. But we know people will be watching on all kinds of devices and if you have good headphones – or a decent system – you are still going to have a good experience. But go to a theatre and hear it as we mixed. Ha ha!”
So much has changed since Ron first began directing movies. Star Wars ushered in the blockbuster. Digital cameras and projection arrived. The market shifted. We are in a different world.
“But the real change has been the explosion of platforms over the last decade – maybe the last five years,” he says. “It is accomplishing so much for audiences. It is making the world smaller. It is creating more access to a range of sensibilities and aesthetics.”
He goes on to explain that it is now possible for anyone to make a half-decent film with a phone and a laptop. It is possible to distribute that film with a few clicks of a keyboard. The possibilities are endless.
“This is all great for the medium. But it is chaos for the business. They don’t know how much to spend on what,” he says with an explosion of laughter.
Yet he has some sense of how earlier low-budget auteurs used to buck the system. Roger Corman, executive producer on Grand Theft Auto, created a series of exploitation empires on the thinnest of shoestrings. The director John Sayles – one of many greats to get their start with Corman – once told me he used to hide props from his boss in case he was accused of going a few bucks over budget.
“He was working very efficiently – to put it politely . . . Ha ha ha!” Howard agrees. “But he was outside the studio system. It used to be drive-in movies. Then it became videocassettes and DVDs. That was a version of what I am talking about. But that now works for so many more people. It was just particular markets back then.”
That experience has proved useful to Howard throughout a long career. Nobody has ever accused him of being profligate or irresponsible. When Disney needed someone to take over Solo: A Star Wars Story after the original directors were defenestrated, they did not pause in calling Ron Howard.
Yet nobody builds legends on being a safe pair of hands. We’re still searching for the quality that defines a Ron Howard film.
“It’s about reflecting how people deal with opportunities,” he ponders. “I am always looking for those stories and to share what I have learned in ways that are entertaining, so that people don’t think they have wasted their time at the film.”
There are worse ambitions.
Pavarotti is released on June 12th