Do you remember Linda Ronstadt?
I’ve always had a fondness for her as a singer, thanks to some 7″ singles that my parents had of her head-bopping folk-rock renditions of “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” long before I knew who Buddy Holly was. Actually, it was thanks to those, plus her duet with James Ingram on “Somewhere Out There” (from my childhood fave, An American Tail), an adult contemporary hit which probably set the weird template for chart-topping romantic ballads spawned off of kids’ movies (see: “A Whole New World,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”).
Well, it turns out that, in the ’70s and ’80s, Linda Ronstadt sold more than 100 million records. She started as one of the most popular singers in rock, before getting restless and delving into light opera, ’30s-style orchestral pop, country crooning, and Mexican ballads from her childhood. She had the charisma and talent to make her most far-flung musical excursions into commercial successes, but she eventually faded out of pop culture. She stopped recording in 2006 and last performed live in 2009. In 2013, she revealed that she had Parkinson’s disease, which prevented her from singing.
The engaging new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is less an in-depth account of the artist’s life than it is a celebration of the forgotten good times. It’s a good primer for someone who maybe knows a little about Linda’s music and would like to know a little more.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk) touch upon Linda’s childhood, her political outspokenness, and some of her relationships (Governor Jerry Brown is mentioned, Star Wars creator George Lucas is not), but mostly they keep the focus on her hard-won successes. In other words, they play the hits — literally; the film is almost wall-to-wall music — but The Sound of My Voice becomes a welcome reminder that hitmaking is a complex and underrated talent.
Only rarely a songwriter herself, Linda has always had impeccable taste in material and collaborators to go with her wide-ranging voice. As if to repay the favor, plenty of laudatory talking heads from the past pop up to sing Linda’s praises. This starts with Bobby Kimmel from the Stone Poneys, the folk trio whose Linda-led rendition of the Michael Nesmith tune “Different Drum” catapaulted the singer to solo stardom. Soon, this humble Tucson transplant was an integral part of the L.A. music scene.
Don Henley pops up and he talks about drumming for Linda, with Glenn Frey also in the band; this meeting led to the formation of that mellow rock juggernaut, the Eagles. (So, depending on your preference, you can thank or blame Linda Ronstadt for their existence.) Although the band’s country-tinged “Desperado” has since become an oft-covered classic rock staple, it was Linda’s rendition that “broke” the song and first got it heard by a wide audience.
Being a star and fronting a band is hard enough, but the film makes it clear that being a young woman like Linda, leading a band full of dudes, adds extra complications. Sideman Waddy Wachtel describes the way musicians would downplay their work in a “chick” act and treat it as lesser-than. Linda reveals in voice-over that, at the time, she just chose to toughen up and found herself “swearing like a truck driver,” in a way that shocks her now.
These problems led Linda and a number of other women stars to form tight friendships. Linda describes seeing Emmylou Harris and initially feeling intense jealousy, before deciding to be a fan and supporter instead. This bond ends up bearing creative fruit later when Linda and Emmylou team up with Dolly Parton for their smash ’80s album Trio. Dolly marvels at Linda’s ability to place herself inside someone else’s song and “claim” it for herself.
The film makes an understated case for Linda as an interpreter-auteur, whose renditions don’t simply serve the songs. They uncover unexpected colors and quirks that are wholly Linda’s own. Singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff describes Linda unlocking the sweeping power ballad from inside a melancholy song that was never composed with such grand designs.
A brief glimpse of Linda recording a Spanish-language duet with Rubén Blades shows her perfectionism in action. Raised to sing in Spanish but speak only in English, Linda is obsessed with getting her pronunciation right. When their voices blend, it’s gorgeous, but Linda can only focus on making sure that her “d” sound is correct.
Not unrelated to the perfectionism, insecurity is another thread woven through the film. Producer Peter Asher describes Linda as the kind of person who would see someone in the front row of her show talking to a friend and immediately assume they were putting her down. (Considering her rep in the press for being “middle of the road” despite championing the work of underdog rock-critic faves like Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, the McGarrigle sisters, and Ry Cooder, this is not totally unfounded.)
Being a woman, being “just” a singer, these things clearly helped to fuel her doubts — and, by extension, her work ethic. In a quietly devastating moment near the end of the film, we are shown present-day Linda attempting to have a living room sing-along with family. Because of her illness, she is unable to sing with the old power and she loses her place in the music. When asked about how this sing-along makes her feel, she replies flatly, “This isn’t really singing.”
After everything, it’s hard not to feel for Linda. The film does a great job of not only reminding viewers how good of a singer she was. How smart, and how pretty, and how hard-working she was. It shows that she’s still here, her influence is still being felt, even if too many of us have forgotten her. And even if Linda can’t use her voice anymore to remind us.
Although the film feels satisfyingly thoughtful in the context of most rock docs, the filmmakers leave noticeable gaps in the story. Linda’s run of late-70s/early-80s New Wave-influenced albums are barely acknowledged, while the thirty years since Linda’s last hit album (a collaboration with Aaron Neville called Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind) are skipped entirely. (Needless to say, the love ballad from the talking mouse movie is also ignored.)
Maybe these elisions are out of deference to the film’s subject, and maybe Linda just didn’t want to get into it. Of course, it’s impossible to squeeze a person’s life and career into a viewer-friendly 90-minute package without making some major cuts. What is here tells a solid story on its own. Still, considering how entertaining and ultimately moving this version of the story is, one wishes for an extended miniseries of Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice in the near future.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice opens in select cities on Friday, September 6.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.