Synopsis: With one of the most memorably stunning voices that has ever hit the airwaves, Linda Ronstadt burst onto the 1960s folk rock music scene in her early twenties.
Stars: Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt
Director: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It’s one thing to see the toll the cruel progression of time can take on a person but it’s another experience all together to hear it. For famous actors or people in the public eye, there can be ways both artificial and natural of slowing that march toward wrinkles. If you’re a singer, though, there’s little that can be done to keep a clarion voice ringing out forever. Think about it, how often have you been to a concert from a performer and wondered, “Gee, they just don’t have the range they used to.” We’ve seen many voices sadly silenced too early due to reckless living but it’s the singers that have no control over their fading instrument that are especially tragic.
Timing-wise, the excellent new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice came my way at a most opportune moment. I’d just finished listening to a new double-CD of Ronstadt’s most famous songs and a number of lesser-known tunes that didn’t chart as high but still showcased her dynamic song stylings and killer voice. I was surprised that I never made the connection at how many instantly recognizable songs Ronstadt leant her voice to. With her wide range in vocals and interests, the singer spent decades at the top of her game, only to have her career cut short due to the gradual onslaught of a debilitating disease.
Directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman both bring a healthy experience in documentary film making, having amassed decades of work with topical subjects that are deeply rooted in human emotions. Epstein’s won two Oscars for his feature docs about the AIDS quilt and Harvey Milk and just last year Epstein and Friedman were nominated for an Academy Award for their short, End Game. They are probably most noted for 1995’s The Celluloid Closet, showing the history of homosexuality depicted in Hollywood films. Though their narrative feature Lovelace wasn’t as well received as it could have been, it showed they were capable of more than just telling stories via an investigative lens
Born the daughter of a machinery merchant and a homemaker, Ronstadt grew up in Arizona and was brought up with music ever-present. From the Mexican folksongs her father taught her as well as the large library of records her family owned, she honed her musical gift by building her range in multiple styles. By the time she joined the folk-rock group the Stone Poney’s in the mid-‘60s she was already creating a singular sound that set her apart from her contemporaries. Rather rapidly advancing as a solo recording artist, she was still associated with many legendary artists of the day from The Doors to Jackson Browne to the men that would eventually form The Eagles. Pretty much everything Ronstadt touched (or sang) turned to gold.
While Ronstadt was never a fading violet in terms of being outspoken and does contribute guiding narration to the film, she mostly lets Epstein & Friedman tell her story through interviews with her friends, family, and colleagues. Considering Ronstadt’s time in the business and how many people she’s worked with, it’s a who’s-who of titans in the music industry…from recording executives to superstar artists. Many seem in total awe not just in Ronstadt’s talent but in her humble persona, always preferring defer praise onto someone else.
Over the next four decades Ronstadt would earn multiple Grammy’s and even a Tony nomination for starring in the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance. While she collaborated with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on three CDs and made a duet with nearly every popular star of the day, it was always her solo songs that hit the biggest chord. The term ‘rock chick’ was largely coined because of her and at one point she was the highest paid female singer in the music industry. The power in her voice was unmatched and whether she was belting out a rock song or pulling it back to deliver a soft ballad, she had the ability to make any song her own. Those interviewed for the doc speak of an artist they loved seeing perform, someone who was there for them onstage and off if they needed.
Retiring in 2011, there were rumors Ronstadt was having trouble with her voice and found it difficult to maintain her sound. When she announced in 2013 she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was unable to sing anymore, it was devastating for her fans across the world. Being interviewed now, Ronstadt seems a bit unconvincingly resolute about her future…like she has grudgingly accepted some realities about her diagnosis. Yet there’s still an aura of gratefulness around her, thankful for the time she was given, but clearly desiring more.
Epstein & Friedman pack the film with music and archival performances that demonstrate what a force Ronstadt was in her prime. Thankfully, it’s not a warts and all feature so there’s little time spent on Ronstandt’s very public relationship with Governor Jerry Brown or any other kiss-and-tell diversions. It appears Ronstadt was the rare artist that found her calling early on and kept her focus on quality instead of excess. Near the end of the film, Epstein & Friedman capture a moment Ronstadt as she is now in her home in San Francisco that gave me extreme goosebumps and a lump in my throat.