It was only four or five years ago that I rediscovered my childhood love of the music of Linda Ronstadt, fueled by the purchase of a couple CD volumes of her greatest hits, a deluxe set of her Trio recordings with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and a recent live album that pulled audio from one of HBO’s very first live concert specials broadcast in 1980. About as thorough and representative a biographical documentary as you could hope for, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice traces the singer’s life from childhood singing popular Mexican songs (canciones) with her musical family through her years of being as diverse a recording artist as seems humanly possible to today when she has adjusted to a life without public singing since Parkinson’s disease began impacting her voice several years ago (her last concert was in 2009).
Directed by the talented filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (responsible—together or separately—for such landmark docs as 1984’s Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet), Sound of My Voice frames Ronstadt in a very different light than other recent films focusing on singer-songwriters, since she was not a songwriter. Instead, her musical gift (aside from the range of her flawless, versatile voice) was finding the perfect songs to fit her vocal abilities. Often, they were lesser-known gems that she and her various collaborators and bandmates would polish, rearrange, and send out into the world as perfect pop-rock creations.
When she moved to California in the late 1960s, Ronstadt fell into a folk-rock group called the Stone Poneys who had a hit with “Different Drum” before she quickly moved on as a solo artist, backed by a band featuring key members of an outfit that would later call itself the Eagles. There’s no reason to go through the list of great songs that Ronstadt made famous, but thanks to a combination of archival interviews as well as a substantial one done more recently, the singer is essentially able to narrate her own story. Speaking of the Eagles, one bit of music history that still remains great is how, shortly after leaving Ronstadt, the Eagles put out their first album, Desperado, which make no impact upon its initial release. But when she covered the title track and made it one of her early hits, attention to the Eagles’ album and the band grew exponentially. Don Henley makes it crystal clear that the Eagles wouldn’t have continued with her support.
As it should, the documentary makes a solid case that Ronstadt became one of the biggest female rock acts of all time (and the biggest for many years in the 1970s), but she did so in an industry utterly dominated by men. Rather than see any other female singer as competition, Ronstadt never missed the chance to reach out and elevate other women in the industry. Her future Trio partner Emmylou Harris explains how her longtime friend supported her at a time after her career seemed in serious jeopardy after the death of her collaborator Gram Parsons died. Harris assumed that was the end of her singing life as well, but Ronstadt pushed her to make her own music.
The film covers a bit of Ronstadt’s personal life—her longtime relationship with musician J. D. Souther and her headline-making romance with California Governor Jerry Brown—but thankfully the directors don’t linger in that realm any longer than necessary. Far more detail is paid to her post-rock career, including operatic musical theater in a New York production (and later film version) of The Pirates of Penzance, a standards collection with arranger Nelson Riddle (Lush Life), the aforementioned Trio country albums, Spanish-language recordings of her favorite Mexican music, and forays into nearly every music genre there is.
One of the more jaw-dropping and heart-wrenching moments in The Sound of My Voice is when we see Ronstadt today, in her early 70s, singing harmony with a pair of family members on a Mexican canciones—and her voice sounds beyond lovely. One of the points that is driven home in the film is that she was a perfectionist when it came to the presentation of her music—she would do lengthy soundchecks before concerts and multiple takes on recorded music to get it just right. Her decision to stop singing and retire was not about her not being able to sing (as was reported); it was about her not being able to sing as perfectly as she once did. Without her defining vocal range that used to fill arenas, she wasn’t interested in being a part of the conversation—a decision that is equal parts tragic and inspiring.
I’m not only recommending you go see Sound of My Voice, I think it’s important to see it in a theater featuring the best possible sound system you can find. The live performances truly pop the way they should. She was a musical pioneer, a vocal activist for all manner of human rights, and a damn fine person to boot, and this film captures all of that beautifully.
Did you enjoy this post? We’d love to hear what you think of our work; take our reader survey here. Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!