Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice may be the most well-wrought bio-pic/documentary of a contemporary musical figure in recent memory. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film moves at a steady pace from the beginning to the end and, bereft of any melodrama whatsoever, it is a clear reflection of its down-to-earth subject. Notwithstanding the singer’s coquettish appearance in her younger years (flaunted to some degree, for instance, in the Boy Scout uniform tailored for the stage), Ronstadt is portrayed largely as she is today: dignified, independent and matter of fact, confident but self-deprecating and, much more often than not, very self-aware about the peaks and valleys of her career and her life as a whole.
The title carries additional resonance because Ronstadt does much of the narration herself throughout the duration of the film. Vintage archive photos and video weave in and out of interviews with notable figures who possess first hand experience with her the singer’s life and times: Don Henley drummed in her band on her first major tour (which is where he met future song-writing partner and co-founder of the Eagles, the late Glenn Frey), Davis Geffen headed his Asylum Records where she found her greatest success and John Boylan has insight as fascinating from his point of view as an early studio producer as does Jackson Browne from his perspective as her Seventies So-Cal peer.
Based on her 2013 book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, The Sound of My Voice is, for all intents and purposes, an authorized piece of work. Yet there’s no reason to doubt its veracity at any point. The dual directors lay out the details of Ronstadt’s life—such as the fact grandmother had Parkinson’s disease with which she is now afflicted–with understated grace and, as they recount the massive commercial success Ronstadt garnered in the Seventies, the only conceivable end they leave loose is the question of why she and her work are not more influential or highly regarded today.
Perhaps its the forced retirement from performing in 2009, compelled by the illness that first manifest itself by adversely affecting her voice, thus precluding Linda from maintaining her profile long-term as visibly as his friend and collaborator Emmylou Harris. Red herring though it may be, the very mainstream nature of Ronstadt’s success may have become an obstacle as well, despite the fact its early roots in country music paved the way for the contemporary form of the genre as we know it today. Or maybe her role as an interpretive artist erroneously diminishes her impact, despite the fact her choice of material included that of Neil Young, just as his career ascended along with then not-so-famous songwriter Warren Zevon (“Hasten Down the Wind,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”) as well as Canada’s McGarrigle Sisters (whose “Heart Like A Wheel” was the title of Ronstadt’s breakthrough album).
Yet all such misperceptions miss a salient point: Linda Ronstadt made business and creative breakthroughs most unique at the time for a female performer in a male-dominated industry. To their great credit, the directors, along with co-producers James Keach and Michele Farinola, refuse to belabor the point any more than the artist ever did: the largely positive consequences of her decisions speak for themselves. Ronstadt fronted multiple all-male bands—about whom she speaks with wry candor—and charted the course of her own career, often against the advice of label moguls like WB’s Joe Smith). And, at the very pinnacle of her popularity, having decided she wanted to pursue other avenues apart from the pop-rock direction that filled stadiums, she chose to explore creative avenues directly tied to her eclectic musical roots.
It’s a mark of the logic in this film that those very touchpoints reappear from early on in these the ninety-five minute and include more than just cursory examination of those pursuits. There’s a tangible insight into Ronstadt’s thinking about performing in the light opera of Broadway, how she personalized a collection torch songs a la Frank Sinatra (on which she collaborated with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ own arranger Nelson Riddle) and why a record of traditional Mexican music carried deep personal meaning for her. That each venture was successful artistically and commercially speaks to Linda Ronstadt’s integrity as much as her daring: one-time paramour songwriter/musician J.D. Souther describes her as a student of style and selected footage of each endeavor reaffirms she was not merely dabbling, but, in the case of the latter, Canciones de Mi Padre, furthering cultural awareness.
If a screenwriter brought the script for The Sound of My Voice to a producer, it might well be rejected as implausible because its plotline– with its semi-tragic end not to mention its cast of colorful characters–seems almost too perfectly-rendered. But, appropriately enough, one of the final scenes gives the lie to that erroneous early impression: as the present-day Linda Ronstadt struggles valiantly but unsuccessfully to harmonize in song with two family members, her disarming vulnerability and shy courage speak volumes about the honest sentimentality that makes this film so moving.