Seldom has a film been more aptly titled than Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Pop singers come and go, but Ronstadt was one of a kind, with a remarkable vocal range and stylistic versatility that allowed her to succeed in seemingly every genre she tried, from country to rock to pop to operetta to Mexican folk songs to the Great American Songbook. The heart of Epstein and Friedman’s film is a series of well-chosen clips of Ronstadt’s performances, and the strength of those performances lift this documentary above the by-the-numbers lovefest it sometimes threatens to become.
Epstein and Friedman achieved extraordinary access to Ronstadt, now retired due to Parkinson’s disease (she noticed a change in her voice even before the disease was officially diagnosed). They also include interviews with an impressive number of her contemporaries and collaborators, including Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Jackson Browne, and Cameron Crowe. Collectively, their recollections paint a picture of Ronstadt, both as a person and as a performer, and also remind us of how much the music business has changed since those bygone days. For some of us old folks, Linda Ronstadt is a stroll down memory lane with a singer who helped create the soundtrack of our version of the 1970s, while for everyone else, it provides an enjoyable and unchallenging introduction to the singer and her music.
Ronstadt achieved so much that it’s exhausting just to list her major accomplishments. For starters, she released more than 30 albums, eleven of which went platinum, and won ten Grammy awards. Her best-known solo hits include “You’re No Good,” “Blue Bayou,” and “When Will I Be Loved,” and she also collaborated with musicians as different as Aaron Neville (their recording of “Don’t Know Much” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100), Frank Zappa, Phillip Glass, and Nelson Riddle. In 1980, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Mabel in Joseph Papp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance (playing opposite St. Louis’ own Kevin Kline, who won a Tony for his performance as the Pirate King). In 1987, she recorded Canciones de Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mexican folk songs; it promptly went double-platinum and became the best-selling non-English-language album in the United States.
While Linda Ronstadt credits Ronstadt as a pioneer in a male-dominated industry, and drops a few remarks about what is was actually like to be a female performer in those days (a subject covered in greater detail in her autobiography Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir), the filmmakers choose for the most part to keep things light and positive. They have time to mention several of her romances, including one with Jerry Brown, then governor of California, but downplay her political activism beyond the inclusion of one very outspoken interview clip. Her choice to play in South Africa during the cultural boycott of the 1980s is mentioned but not explored, and the filmmakers avoid getting into more serious questions like the implications of a white singer achieving massive success (and wealth) with covers of songs originally recorded by black artists. These choices limit the range of Linda Ronstadt, but allow Epstein and Friedman to present her story as a neat package that can be enjoyed without too much thought. | Sarah Boslaugh