Have we taken Linda Ronstadt for granted? She was such a huge star for so long, so ubiquitous and so productive. And it seems, with the dearth of new Ronstadt albums, in the words of fellow folkstress Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” The iconic singer, now 73, has lost her incredible vocal ability to Parkinson’s disease and retired from singing in 2009. Thankfully, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary “Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice” captures and preserves the unforgettable voice while detailing her career and indelible impact on the music industry.
The apple-cheeked Ronstadt became the queen of smooth adult-contemporary “torchy rock” in the 1980s, a magazine cover staple thanks to her high-profile relationships. But that shouldn’t (and could never) erase her heavier roots, and the film strongly asserts Ronstadt’s rock ’n’ roll bonafides as a trailblazing and wildly successful solo female artist in the man’s world of late ’60s and early ’70s country rock.
While other documentaries about the LA music scene at the time have chronicled the bad behavior of the bad boys of folk, what’s refreshing about “Sound of My Voice” (and Ronstadt in general) is her open, generous spirit. She was a connector, giving her blessing as Don Henley and Glenn Frey formed The Eagles while touring as her backup band, and a supporter, lifting country artist Emmylou Harris up with her and becoming her No. 1 fan, rather than a jealous competitor. The film showcases Ronstadt’s remarkably astute assessment of and perspective on the often toxic extracurricular elements of the music scene at the time as well.
For Ronstadt, the music comes before everything else. She wasn’t a songwriter, but as Jackson Browne says in an interview, she was an “auteur” of vocal styling, a singer who could take a song and make it hers forever. A large portion of the film is dedicated to lauding her willingness to experiment with her sound and take risks with her career, trying on an album of standards or casually taking on a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, or storming the gates for Latino representation with an album of traditional mariachi music dedicated to her father and Mexican roots. Ronstadt grew up on a ranch in Tucson, Arizona, part of a large, musical family, and each experiment is a tribute to the different elements of her upbringing.
Made up of archival footage and interviews with those closest to Ronstadt and laid over with narration from Linda herself, the film follows a standard documentary format. The vibe is casual, folksy, heartfelt and filled with great rock stories. While it seems as though Epstein and Friedman focus on Ronstadt’s incredible successes (and there are so many) but gloss over the darker moments, it’s because they’re saving that for last.
After her virtuosic instrument is demonstrated in all of its abilities throughout the archival footage of concerts, recordings and music videos, the tragic loss of Ronstadt’s voice to Parkinson’s hits like a freight train at the end. It’s not so much for us, as fans, who can access her gift in recordings, but for Ronstadt, who at one point declares that she “can’t NOT sing” when the right song strikes. For Ronstadt, her life was always about the music, not about the career. Turns out following the music made for an incomparable career, and Epstein and Friedman’s film is a beautiful, deeply moving and well-deserved tribute to this utterly singular woman and her talent.
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