Review: ‘Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice’ stirs the soul
Memories in popular music are notoriously short, and if you’ve forgotten how extraordinary a singer Linda Ronstadt is, how wide a range of material she’s explored and how deep her commitment to the art and craft of music is, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is a potent, mind-expanding reminder.
Best known for more political documentaries like “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” Oscar winners and co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are not likely candidates to take on the story of a singer. But this is no ordinary performer we’re talking about.
Ronstadt won 10 Grammys, regularly sold out massive arenas and had 11 platinum-selling albums. She was the first artist to top the pop, country and R&B charts simultaneously, and when she recorded “Canciones de Mi Padre,” songs she remembered from her childhood, it became this country’s bestselling Spanish-language album ever.
“What Beyoncé is now is what she was, the first female rock star,” says Bonnie Raitt, who, echoing many women singers, says Ronstadt feels like a sister to her.
One of the pleasures of “The Sound of My Voice” is sampling moments from Ronstadt’s decades of hits, hearing excerpts from classics like “Rescue Me,” “Different Drum,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.” Truly, the hits just keep on coming.
The documentary is also a reminder of how wide-ranging a singer she is, everything from those Mexican canciones to jazz standards to American Songbook classics to Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” for New York Shakespeare Festival maestro Joe Papp. There’s even a clip of her singing rock anthem “The Shoop, Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” with the Muppets.
As the singer herself says, many of her choices “didn’t fit anywhere but my heart.”
Though Epstein and Friedman have fashioned their film as more of a portrait of an artist than a conventional biopic, Ronstadt is heard in voice-over talking about key aspects of her life.
These include two of her most publicized romantic relationships. One was with fellow singer J.D. Souther — he said, “you should cook me dinner” and she responded with a peanut butter sandwich — and the other with California Gov. Jerry Brown, for whom she sings “My Boyfriend’s Back” during a concert when he returns from a campaign swing.
The portrait we get overall is of a remarkably level-headed individual, a perfectionist with a sense of personal integrity whom fellow singer Don Henley aptly characterizes as having “a solid core, a very determined woman.”
We also hear from executives like David Geffen and fellow singers such as Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris about the musical influences that molded Ronstadt, and witness her complete professionalism and unerring instincts about what she should be doing and when she should be doing it.
Even though Ronstadt’s songs were frequently cover versions of other artists’ material, her gift was so extraordinary that once she sang it she owned it. When she collaborated with Harris and Dolly Parton on “Trio,” the resulting harmonies were so spectacular that Parton calls hearing them “like a high you’ve never had.”
Ronstadt grew up in Tucson and got her wide-ranging taste from a musical family that loved to sing. In fact, she formed her first group, the New Union Ramblers, with her siblings when she was 14.
Ronstadt moved to Los Angeles when she was 18, shared a house on the beach in Santa Monica for $80 a month and made a prophet out of Johnny Cash when he introduced her on a “Midnight Special” TV broadcast by saying, “she has what it takes to be around for a very long time.”
The singer also is heard talking candidly about the difficulties of being a woman in charge of a rock tour and has no visible regrets about being single: “My mom told me early on, ‘Go out and have a life. You don’t have to get married. There are alternatives.’”
Ronstadt’s last public concert was in 2009, when the effects of Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for her to sing up to her own standards.
So one of “The Sound of My Voice’s” most poignant moments comes near the close, when she’s heard singing sweetly with members of her family. “She cares about the music, not the career,” says singer Ry Cooder, and this strongly emotional film makes that point crystal clear.
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing Arclight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles
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