Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/12/19 10:30:52

"Feels Like Home"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Seen from a purely cinematic perspective, the new documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is not that big of a deal. It does not exactly reinvent the wheel from a formal perspective, it doesn’t offer any big reveals or especially profound insights and it oddly shies away from some elements to the story that practically cry out for further exploration. Now if a film about a musical performer that I personally did not have much interest in going into it had these flaws, I would right a review that would note the stumbling blocks and then mot likely wrap things up with a shrug and a mention that it is a film best enjoyed by those who are already fans of the subject at hand. And yet, while watching the film, I recognized all these problems but found myself ignoring virtually all of them because I was too busy relishing the opportunity to watch a big-screen celebration of an artist that I have been a passionate fan of since childhood. In other words, I adored practically every frame of the film but considering that I would cheerfully get behind virtually anything arguing for the greatness of Ronstadt, I might suggest that many of you may want to take this particular review with a few more grains of salt than usual.

Using a narration supplied by Ronstadt herself, testimonials from a number of fellow singers and record company executives and tons of archival footage, co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman lay out her story in a brisk and efficient manner. Born in Tucson into a musically-inclined family that embraced many genres, Ronstadt formed her first group with her siblings at the age of 14 and moved to Los Angeles four years later in the hopes of breaking into the music scene. With a voice as spectacular as hers, it wasn’t long before she was noticed and became a familiar face on the emerging music scene in Southern California. First making her mark as an early adopter of what would become known as country rock, she had her big breakthrough with the “Heart Like a Wheel” album and became one of the most popular pop singers of the Seventies, selling millions of records and headlining equally popular concert tours, feats that were not that common for a female singer at the time. (At one point, she was at the top of the pop, country and R&B charts at the same time.) It is hard to describe just how popular she was back then but Bonnie Raitt sums it up pretty well when she says “What Beyonce is now is what she was, the first female rock star.”

As the Seventies ended, however, Ronstadt was feeling less interested in that and discovered the urge to explore different forms of music, much to the consternation of advisors who assured her that she would be destroying her career by venturing away from the pop-rock genre. She took to the stage as Mabel in Joe Papp’s famous production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” and more than held her own. From there, she would record three top-selling collections of standards with Nelson Riddle, a couple of albums of Mexican songs (one of which would become the highest-selling Mexican album in US history) and a collection of country songs with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris before making a triumphant return to pop at the end of the decade with “Cry Like A Rainstorm—Howl Like the Wind,” a top-selling collaboration with Aaron Neville. She would continue to record and perform for the next couple of decades—and would also make a hilarious appearance as herself in the “Mr Plow” episode of “The Simpsons”—until she announced her retirement in 2011 and revealed two years later that she has Parkinson’s disease and, in an unfathomably cruel twist of fate, was no longer able to sing at all.

For various reasons—among them her undeniable beauty, her well-publicized romances with any number of equally famous me and the fact that she specialized in interpreting material written by others rather than writing her own songs—there is the sense that Ronstadt, despite her immense success, has never quite received her due both as an artist and as a musical pioneer and this documentary is at its best when it is making those particular cases. As the film points out, the rock music scene of the Seventies was largely a male-dominated industry and it would be assumed that if a woman did break through the ranks, it was mostly the result of the men behind the scenes pushing her into the spotlight. Even when a woman singer was front and center on stage, the bands they would be leading would invariably be all-male and they would invariably need to adopt a one-of-the-guys attitude just to survive. Although she herself would probably never publicly admit it—it is reputed that she wasn’t initially interested in the idea of a film about her because she thought that there would not be much interest—Ronstadt would prove to be just as much of a perfectionist regarding her work, especially regarding the selection of material, and refused to give in when other tried to steer her away from the offbeat directions that her muse was leading her towards. Additionally, by being one of the first women to hit the heights of pop-rock in the Seventies that she did, she paved the way for countless numbers of singers to follow—Madonna, Adele, Beyonce and Taylor Swift are only a handful of those who owe her a considerable debt.

With a voice as supple as hers—one that she could shift between genres and styles without a hitch—Ronstadt could have conceivably taken the crappiest and most innocuous material imaginable and given it life and soul. However, Ronstadt was blessed with great taste as well as great pipes and she had an unerring ability to pick material that she could do justice to with oftentimes brilliant results. Of course, a lot of the material that she did had already been deemed to be classics long before she got a hold of them—the Gilbert & Sullivan, the collections of standards and rock favorites from the likes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones and the Everly Brothers. However, she also had a keen ear for the works of newer songwriters as well and did excellent versions of material from the Eagles (who began life as her backup band), Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, exposing their work to larger audiences. Granted, some purées might argue that her versions of those songs came across as more sugar-coated than the original but that is not exactly the case—the vocal stylings she applied to the likes of Costello’s “Alison” or Zevon’s “Carmelita” added an extra layer of gentle emotion that served as an effective counterpoint to the tough and cynical lyrics and made them into something deeper and more affecting than one might hear in an ordinary cover.

Of course, while watching “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” it is impossible to view the footage of her performances from throughout her career—ranging from concert footage to an appearance on “The Muppet Show” that I believe was jumping-off point for my own life-long fascination (some might say “crush”) with her—without forgetting about how that voice has been silenced. Perhaps realizing that, Epstein and Friedman do not belabor that particular point for cheap emotional points. Early on in Ronstadt’s narration, she mentions that her grandmother suffered from Parkinson’s disease and then casually mentions that she now suffers from it herself. Then subject is never broached again until towards the end when she talks about how her condition forced her to retire because she could no longer get her voice to do what it was once able to accomplish so effortlessly. After beings reminded of her gifts for the previous 90 minutes, this news once again comes as a massive blow but it is leavened a bit by a sweet little coda that finds her sitting at home and sitting on the sofa while singing a Mexican song with a couple of relatives—it may be a far cry from her days as an arena headliner but she still sounds better than most people and it shows that her gifts have not be completely snuffed out after all.

As I said earlier, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is not exactly a bold or daring work from a cinematic standpoint—it is a production of CNN and it is definitely a film that will not lose much of anything, at least from a visual standpoint, in the journey from the big screen to television. Considering the adventurous nature of the subject, approaching the material in such a paint-by-numbers manner seems like a missed opportunity. In addition, it falls into the same trap as a lot of other documentaries of this nature by giving short shrift to the artistic accomplishments of the latter years of her career. And yet, even though the film as a whole is not particularly risky or surprising, to see and hear Ronstadt tell her story and to once again bask in that incredible discography is, at least from my perspective, an absolute delight from the first moment to the last. For longtime fans, the film will prove to be an irresistible nostalgia bath and for those unfamiliar with her career, it will open their eyes and ears to the work of a defining figure of contemporary pop music. Whichever one of those camps you fall into, it is almost assured that the moment the film ends, you will be making sure that you have downloaded all of her albums because you will want to listen to them all right then and there.

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