Linda Ronstadt was one of the voices of the latter part of the twentieth century. The pure, gorgeous vocals that were once a staple at the top of the Billboard charts has been silenced by Parkinson’s disease but a new documentary, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” serves as a reminder of a pioneer who danced to the beat of a different drum.
The Arizona-born singer made headlines as much for her off-stage life as much as for her on-stage work, but the film wisely focusses on her legacy, the music that made her a superstar. The story begins at home with a family who played and sang all types of music from rock and roll, rhythm and blues, gospel, opera, country and mariachi. Later, those influences mixed and mingled in the folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys. Their biggest success, a cover of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” became Ronstadt’s first and only hit with the band and she soon left to forge a solo career that would see her become the first female rock star and the first woman to have five platinum albums in a row. “Linda was the queen,” says Bonnie Raitt. “She was like what Beyoncé is now.”
At the peak of her fame she grew tired of selling out arenas and the constant grind of being on the road. Looking for new challenges she took to the Broadway, appearing in “Pirates of Penzance” on stage opposite Kevin Kline. “Gilbert and Sullivan? Can you imagine another rock star who has the guts to go out there and do that kind of musical comedy?” says Jackson Browne. “To her it was a mountain to climb.”
From operetta she went on to explore the American songbook, interpreting the songs of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald among others. “I didn’t think it was a good idea, not because she couldn’t do it,” says Warner bros executive Joe Smith, “but because we had this run going with rock and roll and country rock records.”
The portrait painted of Ronstadt is one of an artist more concerned with music than her career. She was once the highest paid women in music but left that behind in favour of following her passions, whether it’s making a record of traditional Mexican songs (which became the largest selling Spanish-language record in history to that date), roots rock or singing with her pals Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
The film closes on an emotional note with the revelation that Parkinson’s disease has robbed her of her instrument. “I still sing in mind my but I can’t do it physically,” she says.
Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman use archival footage, mixed with new interviews with many of the singer’s friends and colleagues, to complete the picture. It’s wonderful to hear the music, to be reminded of the width and breadth of Ronstadt’s daring and talent, but the commentary tends toward the “She was the best singer I’ve ever heard,” style rather than providing much insight into what makes the singer tick. At the end, however, it doesn’t matter much, as the music, in all its variation and strength, tells the story in a way that suits Ronstadt best.