Acclaimed Documentary about Luciano Pavarotti
By LAUREL BUSBY
Palisades native Jeanne Elfant Festa never got the chance to meet Luciano Pavarotti, but she is now friends with several of his family and friends.
Elfant Festa, a 1982 PaliHi grad, developed the relationships while producing the recently released documentary, “Pavarotti,” which chronicles the life of the late opera virtuoso.
“I think I’ll be friends with his family and friends for the rest of our lives,” said Elfant Festa, noting that creating a documentary about a man with living relatives requires a special sensitivity. “We develop very good relationships and trust. That takes a long time. It takes longer than one thinks, because it’s organic.”
This trust is the most essential building block for a strong documentary, Elfant Festa continued. Although a good story is, of course, also essential, and such a story generally begins with an intriguing subject. With Pavarotti, a celebrated and immensely popular tenor who died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer, they had found a particularly charismatic, joyful man to illuminate.
“He had touched an emotional chord and resonated in so many different countries and so many different cultures,” said Elfant Festa, noting that his work had more than 100 million YouTube hits. “That just struck us in a wonderfully good way.”
It also struck Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, who helmed the project, and the resulting collaboration has attracted strong viewership for a documentary, earning about $4 million since its release last month, including an average of more than $7,500 per theater on opening weekend. In addition, reviews have been largely positive, and the movie has earned a 98 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Pavarotti” has also succeeded in pleasing varied family members, which is a feat considering the singer’s complicated romantic relationships. While married to his first wife, Pavarotti had a longtime romance with his assistant. Another affair led to the end of his first marriage, an estrangement with three of his daughters, and eventually resulted in a marriage to his second wife.
His wife, his ex-wife, his three older daughters, and his assistant were interviewed and featured in the documentary, which doesn’t shy away from scandals, but also never sensationalizes them. The emotive singer and his music is always the center of the film.
“It’s a delicate balance, because we came into this with the intention of making the film with the full support of both families, and we have,” said Elfant Festa, the executive producer. “We have built a bridge with the families and very much hope that this will form their relationships for the future.”
Respectful, yet illuminating music documentaries are one hallmark of White Horse Pictures, where Elfant Festa has headed documentary production since the company’s formation in 2014. White Horse has a catalog of a dozen music documentaries, including some created at her previous company, Exclusive Media, and some on the horizon, such as the fall release, “The Apollo,” about New York City’s influential Apollo Theater.
The movies explore some of the most iconic figures in rock music, including The Beatles, The Who, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, and the company has several upcoming titles, including an exploration of the Bee Gees.
However, Elfant Festa’s first feature documentary centered on the Foo Fighters, a band led by Nirvana’s former drummer, Dave Grohl. “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth,” which was directed by James Moll and won a Grammy in 2012, delves into both the birth and growing pains of the band of which Elfant Festa was a huge fan. The project also provided her a good initiation into the music documentary world, which she found to be a perfect fit.
“What I really like is exploring the human condition,” Elfant Festa said. “In doing these stories, I’m exploring the human journey of people who’ve become famous and also how they’ve shaped the world we live in…. I’m drawn to stories that organically portray these complex multifaceted people in this multifaceted world.”
In addition, by delving into the ups and downs of someone’s life by transposing it to the narrative three-act structure of a film, she and White Horse Pictures endeavor not only to entertain the audience but also to provide moments of self-reflection, since the depicted experiences may interweave in unexpected ways with viewers’ lives.
“Documentaries are the new indie films,” Elfant Festa noted. “A lot of people want to see a true story that has a somewhat a common denominator with twists and turns that affect the viewer.”
Elfant Festa traveled a circuitous route to become a documentarian. A life-long Palisadian, she grew up in Marquez Knolls with her siblings, Debbie and Noel, and their parents, Flo and Allan Elfant. She attended Marquez Elementary, Paul Revere Middle School, and eventually Palisades High, even becoming the 1982 Miss Palisades.
As a PaliHi junior, she also met her husband, Rich, a fellow Palisades native who now owns the local Festa State Farm Insurance on Sunset. The couple, whose first date was set up by their parents, now have two grown children, Daniela, 27, also a filmmaker, and Tony, 24, a financier.
In her career, Elfant Festa started out in commercial acting, did some stand-up comedy, and then produced a small workshop of a play. This began her foray into producing, which eventually led her to connect with numerous people in the entertainment industry, including current White Horse partner Nigel Sinclair, also a Palisadian.
After the Foo Fighters movie, Elfant Festa and Sinclair continued to work together first at Exclusive Media, and then at White Horse with fellow producers Nicholas Ferrall and Cassidy Hartmann. The four take a “horizontal” and “collegial” approach to their projects, where although each has particular areas of responsibility, they also closely collaborate on developing ideas.
“We call it swarming,” Elfant Festa said. “We feel it unlocks more creative ideas than one individual could do. I think between the four of us, we have established a pretty good track record. I’m really proud of it.”
In heading the documentary side of their venture, Elfant Festa relishes conducting deep research, and in the process, often unearthing never-before-broadcast footage, such as Pavarotti performing spontaneously in an empty Amazonian opera house where Enrico Caruso once sang.
She and the company also strive to work with quality directors, such as Martin Scorsese, who directed both “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” and “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” and Howard, who also directed their Grammy-winning production, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years.”
Such directors provide not only a name, but also a point of view, which the company has found essential in creating a strong movie. In addition, Elfant Festa said they have repeatedly worked with other esteemed professionals, such as writer and deft interviewer Mark Monroe, who also wrote the Oscar-winning documentary “Icarus,” and award-winning editor Paul Crowder.
“Our goal is to make films that are lasting,” Elfant Festa said. “Everything is focused on that dignity and nobility within the human condition. Characters are often faced with diverse circumstances, whether the Foo Fighters or The Beatles. They face adversity, but they are also all committed to creating beautiful art.”