You always kind of got the feeling that Linda Ronstadt was a kind human being. I mean, sure, she was a superstar when she burst onto the late 60's-70's music scene, but you couldn't help but picture the musical force having a humanity that matched the richness of her amazing, amazing voice.
The long overdue documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice largely affirms that sneaking suspicion that Ronstadt, despite having achieved superstardom, managed to maintain her humanity amidst it all and it's that rich, immersive feeling of humanity that permeates every frame of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's entertaining documentary that picked up the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Provincetown International Film Festival and is now arriving in theaters courtesy of indie distributor Greenwich Entertainment.
Ronstadt was in her 20's when she arrived on the American folk rock music scene in 1967. It was an arrival that marked the introduction of one of music's most amazing voices, a voice that belonged to one of music's most precise and analytical performers who was as comfortable with pop music as she was with opera and world music.
There's an emotional resonance to Ronstadt's story, though the doc doesn't really explore that chapter until its winding down moments. However, if you're familiar with Ronstadt's music or you grew up with her then you're likely already familiar with the almost criminal taking of Ronstadt's voice by Parkinson's Disease that largely ended her career.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is never less than entertaining, Epstein and Friedman for the most part avoiding the "tell all" tendencies of similar docs in favor of affectionately exploring the world of a woman whose devotion to music was resolute. While she had the occasional high profile relationship, for Ronstadt music was her true love and it was where she lived most harmoniously.
When asked why she sings, Ronstadt once noted " “They sing for a mate, to claim their territory, or simply to give voice to the delight of being alive in the midst of a beautiful day, so the subsequent generations won’t forget what the current generation endured or dreamed or delighted in.” Indeed, Ronstadt's voice is the kind of voice that takes you to another time, another place, and into another world that is immersive and dreamlike.
A perfectionist in the studio, Ronstadt was known for being devoted to musical collaboration. She shared the spotlight freely and, despite having a voice that always stood out, was at her best when she placed herself amongst musical equals like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Nelson Riddle and so many others. She was unafraid to cross genres, though you always get the sense that Ronstadt never saw it as crossing genres - it was simply making the music she loved.
Ronstadt? She seemingly loved all music.
When she arrived in California from her Arizona home, Ronstadt quickly set about becoming part of the music community. Don Henley and Glenn Frey played in her band, so obviously talented that she eventually encouraged them to go off on their own.
In case you've forgotten, they did.
She sang back-up on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and early boyfriend J.D. Souther produced her "Don't Cry Now" album while writing some of her early hits. Ronstadt was getting established.
There's something refreshing about watching Ronstadt go all fangirl over Emmylou Harris. It's an authentic enthusiasm she would share time and again from her two collaborations with Harris and Dolly Parton on the "Trio" albums to an incredible collaboration with Sinatra arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle on American Songbook standards that continues to be one of the gold standards even for today's artists who approach such a project.
Co-directors Epstein and Friedman know their way around a documentary having given us such gems as The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk, though there's no denying that Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is a gentler, more affectionate, and less confrontational motion picture. Ronstadt herself is a complex individual, a woman whose collaborations could occasionally mask her insecurities and whose known grief over the loss of her voice are both barely explored here. While these absences don't render the film ineffective, for true Ronstadt fans they do likely mean that Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice won't be considered the true, definitive Linda Ronstadt documentary that she truly deserves.
However, the documentary that remains is extraordinary to watch and is filled to the brim with Ronstadt's golden voice and varied worlds of musical exploration.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is the kind of documentary that will have you rushing over to your Spotify or Pandora or Apple account to dig up the musical treasures you find when you search for Ronstadt. From folk rock classics to American Songbook standards to the notoriously challenging world of Pirates of Penzance, you will find one of the most beloved voices of 70's music whose voice may quiver and shake now but whose music remains as precise and beautiful as ever.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic