The new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet), proves aptly titled. Not only does the pic, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, provide many examples of the glorious vocals that made its subject a pop music superstar, it also allows us to once again hear her voice as she narrates her story. Astutely chronicling an amazing musical career that ended prematurely due to Parkinson’s disease, the doc will delight the singer’s old fans and likely make her many new ones as well.
Sound of My Voice begins with a montage of clips of Ronstadt’s television appearances during her heyday, followed by Dolly Parton proclaiming, “Linda could literally sing everything!” The assertion is well proven in the film as it chronicles Ronstadt’s myriad stylistic shifts including folk, pop, rock, country, operetta, the Great American Songbook and traditional Mexican music. It’s hard to imagine any other singer who could pull that off both creatively and commercially.
“People would think I was trying to remake myself, but I never invented myself in the first place,” Ronstadt wryly observes.
Ronstadt came by her love of music easily; her Mexican grandfather was the founder and leader of a large band, and her father, who had a beautiful voice (we hear a sample of it in the doc), was fond of singing on any occasion. She was exposed to all sorts of music while growing up in Tucson, Arizona, and began singing in a vocal group with her two siblings as a teenager. Ronstadt moved to Los Angeles in 1964, and the rest, as they say, is history. The film includes reminiscences by such friends and colleagues as Don Henley, Ry Cooder, David Geffen, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Cameron Crowe and Peter Asher, among many others, although Jerry Brown, with whom she had a longtime relationship, is conspicuously absent.
Ronstadt had her first chart hit with “Different Drum,” a song by Mike Nesmith (of The Monkees) that she recorded as lead singer of the Stone Poneys. Her record company wanted her to go solo, with one of her early backup groups including future Eagles Glenn Frey and Henley. Her rise to solo stardom was meteoric, fueled by a stint opening for Neil Young in arenas and amphitheaters that exposed her to massive audiences. Ronstadt amassed a string of pop hits including “You’re No Good,” “Blue Bayou,” “It’s So Easy,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Desperado,” “Just One Look” and “Hurt So Bad.” Ironically, Ronstadt was always insecure about her singing despite having total confidence in her creative choices.
“I would consider her a real auteur,” says Jackson Browne about Ronstadt, who eventually tired of the grind of being a pop star. She began pursuing other musical passions, such as Gilbert & Sullivan, which her mother had exposed her to as a child. She co-starred with Kevin Kline in a Central Park production of The Pirates of Penzance that moved to Broadway and was later adapted into a film. Deciding that she wanted to sing the types of songs that Frank Sinatra performed, Ronstadt was delighted to learn that his legendary arranger Nelson Riddle was available. “I didn’t know he was still alive,” she amusingly recalls. Other forays into different musical styles included the Trio albums, in which she collaborated with Parton and Harris, and Canciones de Mi Padre, which became the biggest-selling Spanish-language album ever. Along the way, Ronstadt was nominated for 26 Grammy Awards, winning 10.
The documentary also delves into such personal topics as her tabloid-ready romantic relationship with former California Gov. Brown, her commitment to political and social issues and, most movingly, the Parkinson’s disease that robbed her of the ability to perform. For someone who loved singing above almost all else, it was a devastating blow. “It must have been quite a reckoning,” comments J.D. Souther, with whom she was once romantically involved.
Ronstadt appears only briefly in the film, at the beginning and the end. The deeply touching final scene shows her singing Mexican songs in the living room with several relatives, her voice quavering and barely heard. After they’re done, she says that she was happy to participate but points out, “This isn’t really singing.” Fortunately for us, Ronstadt did enough real singing during her career to make her voice one that will be heard for as long as people listen to music.
Production companies: CNN Films, PCH Films, Telling Pictures
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Producers: James Keach, Michele Farinola, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Executive producers: Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton
Directors of photography: Nancy Schreiber, Ian Coad
Editors: Jake Pushinsky, Heidi Scharfe
Composers: Bennett Salvay, Julian Raymond
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival