For those unfortunates who did not have their formative years soundtracked by the brilliant singer Linda Ronstadt, this movie plugs you into what all the fuss was about. The new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice gives viewers a poignant window into the life and work of one of our best-loved musicians. It’s a giant sweep of her stardom, from the freewheeling 1960s until her forced retirement in 2011, when Parkinson’s Disease took the color and vibrato from her extraordinary voice.
Oscar-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt) step outside their usual political realm to elegantly explore Ronstadt’s life. Narrated by Ronstadt herself, who’s glimpsed at the beginning and the end of the film in her current persona – still lovely, still humorous but deeply affected by her illness – she talks about her colorful musical roots. Raised in Tucson, in a Mexican family that connected her to music on both sides of the border, her gift was both innate and honed by her family’s joyful singalongs. She deemed the radio her “best friend.”
A move to California in the 1960s was inevitable, where the folk/country/rock movements were exploding. Initially in a band called “The Stone Poneys,” a savvy producer heard their work, summarily dismissed the group and zeroed in on the career of the “girl singer.” Possessing a vulnerable mystique, compelling sexuality (along with soulful gumdrop eyes), Ronstadt was destined for stardom.
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She earned her worthy legacy for vocal stylings that took other songwriter’s works to the next level. Her rendition of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” began a lengthy list of enduring hits. Crisp, exciting film footage of her performing “You’re No Good,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Don’t Know Much” (with Aaron Neville) and “When Will I Be Loved” will thrill the newcomer and take those who grew up with her music on a delicious musical time trip.
The people who share their memories and insights on Ronstadt are the proverbial “Who’s Who” of music legends: Peter Asher, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Don Henley and David Geffen (among others). They provide warm, funny commentary on the pleasures of working with and befriending this artist who cared more about musical excellence than stardom. And who seems, by all accounts, to have humanist activist leanings and a decent heart.
Ronstadt’s musical eclecticism is lovingly covered in the film. She was not merely a folk-rocker or country singer; she took her talents in many directions. She embraced Gilbert & Sullivan (a favorite of her mom’s), the Spanish songs her father taught her, operetta, show tunes, and Nelson Riddle’s American Songbook arrangements. She refused to be typed; every stripe of music was within her capacities.
Those interested in Ronstadt’s private life may be a tad underserved. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is mainly an ode to her music and her humanity. Still, her ex-boyfriend J. D. Souther serves up a few fun intimate details, and her romance with former Governor Jerry Brown is playfully referenced.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is a musical love letter to a legend, one whose past celebrity Bonnie Raitt compares to Beyonce’s. The tragedy of her Parkinson’s Disease is profound, as it slowly removes her glorious instrument. She discusses this with quiet acceptance and heartening flashes of humor. It’s a voice that will be deeply missed going forward.
But much of it is archived here, in all its spirit and high-resolution beauty. This is a documentary that will appeal to old fans and stir up new ones. Linda Ronstadt – The Sound of My Voice pays tribute to a woman who deserves ongoing kudos.
-Photo: Linda Ronstadt speaks at the MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Dolly Parton at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 8, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for NARAS)