1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
September 27, 2019
inda Ronstadt, among the greatest of rock stars, hasn’t sung, at least in her view, since 2009. Beforehand, she’d begun to notice that, whenever she performed live, she was shouting more so than she was singing. She couldn’t control her vibrato, her melisma, the way she once had. What was going on? In 2012, Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and, since then, has had to sate most of her artistic needs by
watching others perform. When she first announced her diagnosis to the public a few years ago, it felt like a major loss. Here was one of the finest singers of her generation being silenced by something over which she had no control.
Linda Ronstadt — wrongly — isn’t always a name that immediately comes to mind when the public thinks of the pantheon of the best popular vocalists. Quicker to pop up on women-centric listicles are artists in the Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston class. But Ronstadt, who was among the most commercially successful entertainers of the 1970s and ‘80s, didn’t just have the vocal chops to earn a spot in those ranks. She sang with a hurricane's force. Ronstadt was also something of an auteur — an exceptional stylist. She never wrote her own songs but always asserted incredible control over the way she sounded, and how her career would unfold. She was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, yet Ronstadt remains for the most part underrated: vocally and artistically an “oh yeah” than a right-away given when having best-of discussions.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, a new documentary by Rob Ebstein and Jeffrey Friedman, efficiently (though a bit hagiographically) biographizes her life. It also serves as a film-length reminder of her greatness. While watching the movie, at a screening primarily comprising baby boomers, I sensed that we all knew how talented and self-challenging Ronstadt was but couldn’t help but gasp in awe, sometimes, when confronted by all of her excellence distilled anyway. At one point in the film, Bonnie Raitt, who serves as a talking head, compares Ronstadt to Beyoncé. If I’d heard the comparison before The Sound of My Voice, I wouldn’t be so sure, in lieu of long being a proponent of Ronstadt’s. But after becoming reacquainted with Ronstadt’s career, and being in the heat of the film, it eventually didn't feel like too broad a comparison. (Even though it certainly was and is.)
musical upbringing in Tucson, Arizona to her early-on success with the rock trio the Stone Poneys, who got a big hit, in 1967, with the too-precious folk-rock ditty “Different Drum.” Then we stroll through her ‘70s career, in which she flourished as a rock-oriented solo artist; that moves into her experimental 1980s, during which she did a few albums of G.I.-generation standards, a collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and some LPs of traditional Mexican music to celebrate her heritage on her father’s side.
Many rock docs don't have all the interviewees we wish they had. Bridges, so often when it comes to egotistical music stars, tend to frequently be burned. But nearly all the key people in Ronstadt’s life, besides her former California governor boyfriend Jerry Brown, appear, and speak glowingly of her. Parton goes on and on about Ronstadt could essentially do anything she put her mind to, and well. Harris nearly breaks down in tears talking about the kindness of her friend, and remembers how Ronstadt was among the people who supported her most early in her career — around the same time she was mourning her lover, Gram Parsons, who’d just suddenly died. Jackson Browne, Cameron Crowe, David Geffen show up, too; everyone reiterates Ronstadt’s concurrent proficiency and underratedness as an artist. That she made a positive impact on so many people is a testament both to her spirit (Ronstadt, as we learn, consistently heaped commendation on rather than got envious of her peers; in a ‘70s-era interview with Crowe for Rolling Stone, she speaks of how unhealthy a thing rock-star solipsism can be) and to how much she was admired in her heyday.
But the endless compliments, paired with some of the elisions the directors make, clarify that The Sound of My Voice is meant to be less comprehensive and more rose-colored — a movie that sings almost entirely in praises. (Here, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Lows or controversies are either glossed over or unmentioned. It’s alluded to that Ronstadt had a thing for diet pills in her youth, which could lead to explorations of Ronstadt’s sense of self (we intermittently hear that she had low self-esteem) but doesn’t go anywhere. The movie shows that Ronstadt could be politically outspoken, and evidences this entertainingly through a nighttime news interview during which she spells out her views on racism, nuclear war, the current presidency, and more. But the film doesn’t highlight the flak she got for performing in South Africa during the apartheid era, for example, or for praising the documentarian Michael Moore at a stage show. The movie commends her decision to record Mexican standards albums as a characteristically nervy artistic move, for instance, without generating a dialogue with some of the potentially touchy aspects undergirding them — one of them being the way Ronstadt seemed to be trying on one of her identities, in a way, and then taking it off as if it was a shirt by the next album. Her ‘90s and 2000s are basically nonexistent, in the film’s purview. Why?
The Sound of My Voice, above all else, is fashioned to nudge people to reconsider Ronstadt and her abilities, which infuriatingly got undermined throughout her career by her unwanted sex-symbol image and no-writing thing. But she could take practically any song of her liking and remold it into a track that would be better than the original most of the time. It didn’t matter if it had originally been performed by Hank Williams, the Rolling Stones, or Gilbert & Sullivan. I can’t think of many artists who have done this and made a career out of it, let alone with Ronstadt’s authority. A producer notes at one point in the film that while Ronstadt wasn’t always confident as a person, she was always confident as an artist — something you can still hear in her output.
There’s a plot twist at the end of The Sound of My Voice. We sit with Ronstadt in her living room, where she’s flanked by two of her relatives. They’re performing a traditional Mexican folk ballad. Ronstadt harmonizes. Though not belting with her normal locomotive power, she sounds good. Didn’t she say, earlier, that she could no longer sing? We hear one of the filmmakers, off-screen, wonder the same thing. “This isn’t really singing,” Ronstadt clarifies. Then she asks, moments later, when dinner is going to be served. Ronstadt appears to have happily adjusted to her new, more limitedly musical way of living. The scene served as one of many times I got emotional watching the film. A singular artist has, in some ways, been quieted, but The Sound of My Voice amplifies it once more. It again puts on a pedestal a talent that isn’t as regularly venerated as it should be. If not a stirring refresher course for Ronstadt’s biggest devotees, I’m certain the feature will make newcomers instantaneous fans. B+
he film chronicles Ronstadt's career with the slick, fairly romantic style we come to expect from Behind the Music-style documentaries. (One of The Sound of My Voice's distributors is CNN Films.) Ronstadt narrates with clear-headedness and dry wit; one of the best asides she offers involves her seeing the Doors in the early days and thinking about how big they’d be if they just got rid of Jim Morrison. (We move from her