During the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt was the most popular female singer in the United States. More than that, she changed the face of rock and roll, brought together musicians in her back-up band who would later form the Eagles, and busted through every barrier the niche marketers of the recording industry tried to put in her way to sing every style of music she wanted to tackle. Folk, country, rock, pop, R&B, mariachi, classics from the American songbook, operetta, opera—she did it all, and did it well. The round-faced phenom from Tucson deserves a great documentary, and she gets one with Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.
The Telling Pictures co-founders and co-directing team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet , Paragraph 175 , State of Pride ) have frequently told stories about the gay community since they began collaborating in 1987. A documentary about Ronstadt may seem a bit of a departure for them, but in both collaborative and individual directorial efforts, they have ventured wide, from their Oscar-nominated documentary short about the frontiers of medicine, End Game (2018), to a feature film centered on porn star Linda Lovelace (Lovelace ).
The challenge Ronstadt’s story posed was to show the progression of her career and artistry by making the right choices from among the vast expanse of her performances and archival interviews. From early footage of her gigs with the Stone Poneys at the Troubadour in Los Angeles to her performance as Mabel Stanley in director Wilford Leach’s film adaptation of Joseph Papp’s stage production of The Pirates of Penzance, Epstein and Friedman have covered a representative sample of her genre-hopping excellence and even some of her poor choices, such as her cover of Lowell George’s “Willin’.”
The sound quality is variable, but generally quite good, and watching her learn how to sing in Spanish from Rubén Blades in clip from The Return of Rubén Blades (1985) shows her dedication to her art. Her friendships and collaborations with women—Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Anna McGarrigle, all of whom are interviewed for the documentary—are shown to have formed a bedrock for her in the masculine world of rock, which she said in a filmed interview was a lonely place for her.
We get short sketches of her upbringing and personal life, including her highly publicized romance with California Gov. Jerry Brown, but the overwhelming focus of the film is where it should be—her singing legacy. I wanted to know more about her musical training (not much, apparently), but Epstein and Friedman had to leave a lot out from this chronicle of her fully packed life. Their film, narrated by Ronstadt herself, shows her to be a pioneer and a woman in charge of her own destiny, at least until her story links with the directors’ AIDS-focused films—her affliction with Parkinson’s disease, which robbed her of her career and a big chunk of life as she knew and loved it. After watching and listening to all of the wonderful performances Ronstadt gave over the years, the silencing of her voice is like a death in the family.