So I started looking for other things.
Upon sitting down to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman‘s documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, I had to ask myself why I knew her name. She’s obviously one of the biggest chart-hopping women to ever grace a stage and record music, but I couldn’t think of a single title to attribute to her in a way that correlated why I knew who she was without actually knowing who she was. Then “You’re No Good” started playing. Then came her cover of the Eagles’ “Desperado” and eventually a rendition of The Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” sung by others in her honor at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But the song that clicked was “Don’t Know Much”—her duet with Aaron Neville.
It should come as no surprise since the duo won two Grammys for their 1989 album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind and thus earned ample radio play. Those are just two of Ronstadt‘s ten wins, however, along a prolific career spanning multiple genres, languages, and mediums with a voice the musicians Epstein and Friedman interviewed (Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, and Don Henley amongst others) couldn’t stop talking about. Ronstadt graced the cover of Rolling Stone, sold out arenas internationally, was nominated for a Tony and Golden Globe award, won an Emmy, and never seemed to lose her artistic passion or human compassion in the process. She’s an icon, trendsetter, and one-of-a-kind talent deserving of the effusive praise bestowed upon her on-screen.
And that’s what this documentary includes: never-ending praise. While that could be problematic depending on the subject, Ronstadt appears to have earned it by living a mostly selfless life. When someone speaks about everyone doing narcotics, they say Linda’s drug of choice was diet pills—and not for a long period of time. When an anecdote about finding a band to play with her on her first tour delivers the names Don Henley and Glenn Frey, they each pretty much say Linda wished them every success in the world upon their decision to leave and form the Eagles. And a story from her own mouth about seeing Emmylou perform for the first time ends not in jealousy and rivalry, but friendship and sisterhood. Ronstadt was a saint.
That’s what makes the reason for her having to stop singing so tragic too. The film doesn’t try to turn her Parkinson’s diagnosis into a revelation that punches us in the gut, though. On the contrary, Linda admits her ailment at the beginning when talking about her ancestors and the fact her maternal grandfather spent every penny he had trying to cure her grandmother of the same disease. It may seem like a small decision, but knowing ahead of time really helps us to dive into the stories and music without worrying about what’s on the horizon. Rather than see success derailed, we watch a life lived to its fullest before it’s ended on her terms the moment she knew her voice couldn’t live up to her standards.
What we get is therefore a pretty standard oral history of a career without any hidden mysteries. Ronstadt is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of celebrity who isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the music industry’s gender disparity, straw man political arguments concerning where you should be “allowed” to play, and the complete reversal of the stereotype that successful women don’t get along. To see the way she embraced her success and never let it change her identity is inspiring when most music biographies are about artists literally killing themselves for the pursuit of empty promises. Maybe it helped that Linda didn’t write her own songs (although the way she sang them gave her implicit ownership nonetheless). But that also makes her retirement harder because her gift is gone.
That she was therefore able to break down walls, honor her Mexican heritage, and sing opera on Broadway before Parkinson’s took her livelihood away is all the more meaningful. That the people interviewed are former agents, producers, boyfriends, band-mates, and contemporaries with nothing negative to say shows how genuinely pure and unproblematic her legacy will remain. And through it all there’s a glint in her eyes that show her strength and talent whether on-stage, in an interview, or watching someone else perform. She explains at one point about how some music speaks to her and won’t let go until she sings it and I’m not sure there’s a better way to describe her life than that. Music is her lifeblood and she cherishes it with her entire soul.
Seeing that truth in action is enough for Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice to be a success regardless of its generic format (archival footage mixed with interviews along a chronological timeline). Some subjects simply transcend convention to hold our attention to the very end. We easily fall in love with who she is as a person and the songs she’s left behind whether for the first time or all over again for those fans who’ve missed following her career this past decade. It’s impossible not to after learning all the things she did to open doors for women in rock via ways most fear would hurt their own longevity and success. She propped up everyone she met and subsequently watched her star rise even higher.
Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment