One of the many reminders of the often discounted greatness of Linda Ronstadt arrives about 30 minutes into Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. We see the biggest female rock star of the time (1976) in a studio with her band, filming what’s essentially an early music video. The song — Karla Bonoff’s sad-sack ballad of epic proportions, “Lose Again” — builds in gale-force winds with each verse and chorus. The band appears to be instrument-synching with the track, but Ronstadt, standing behind a microphone, is clearly singing it live. And by the time she reaches the last line — “I love you and lose again” — she ramps up the word love into a roar of throaty desperation, like a bubbling pressure cooker that suddenly erupts. Over four decades later, that vocal jolt still sends a shudder down one’s spine.
During her heyday, which spanned most of the Seventies and a bit into the following decade, moments like that were quintessential Ronstadt. Hardly a flashy performer despite her earthy, denim-Seventies-girl allure, she rarely talked or even moved much onstage, except to turn around and face a drummer during an instrumental break. A Ronstadt concert was all about her voice and the songs, which makes the subtitle of the first-ever doc on her all the more appropriate. Of contemporary acts who comingle pop, country and rock in a similar way, only Kacey Musgraves comes to mind when it comes to downplaying showmanship and focusing on, well, music.
For those who don’t know much about Ronstadt, which at this point likely means most the population under the age of 40, The Sound of My Voice will be a useful primer. She wasn’t the first female rock star — Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, among others, preceded her in the arenas and on the pop charts. The fact that Ronstadt didn’t write her own material (a no-no during the singer-songwriter era) was one of several marks against her back in the day; it also didn’t help that she was friends with the Eagles, whose records were always better than reviewers claimed but who were still hardly the most critically revered band of their era.
But before she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years ago, by which time she’d already lost her ability to sing, Ronstadt was arguably the biggest female pop solo star before Whitney Houston. The film trots out multiple magazine covers (including Time, which rarely hyped rock stars), footage of her Grammy wins and her rendition of the National Anthem at a 1977 World series game. Should you not be convinced, it then slips in clips of her performing her hits, from 1967’s chamber-pop sparkler “Different Drum” (with her first band the Stone Poneys) to her 1989 duet with Aaron Neville, “Don’t Know Much.” In each one, her voice is both tender, lusty, a giant musical teardrop that conveyed both broken-heart vulnerability and, thanks to her lung power, an undeniable sense that she could overcome anything in her way. Even if AutoTune had existed back then, she wouldn’t have needed it.
As Jackson Browne recalls in the movie, Ronstadt was, from the start, a “fully developed vocal stylist,” and although her rock covers could be a tad wooden (see: her tale on the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”) , she tackled every song as if she had written it. Watching as she rips into Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” or melts into Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You,” you forget that others attempted those songs before her. Like many of our finest interpretive singers, Ronstadt swallowed the songs whole and made them her own. And her approach in “Lose Again” — holding off on the firepower until the end, making it count all the more — was also something of a trademark, also utilized in her cover of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and her country weeper classic, “Long Long Time.” Thankfully, melisma overkill was not in her vocabulary.
As a piece of filmmaking, The Sound of My Voice is perfectly functional and proficient, taking the standard bio-doc approach but never quite transcending it. Browne is one of many talking heads who testify to her importance and relay mostly harmless anecdotes; others include Don Henley, David Geffen, producer John Boylan, and songwriter and former lover JD Souther, whose memories are particularly insightful and wistful in light of her current health issues. Ronstadt herself is heard (but rarely seen) narrating parts of her life story. Given the discreet nature of her 2013 memoir Simple Dreams, it’s no surprise that her personal life is played down. The filmmakers clearly couldn’t avoid touching on her most high-profile relationship, with former California governor Jerry Brown, who, tellingly, was not interviewed in the movie. But other romances (with the likes of George Lucas and Jim Carrey) aren’t mentioned, nor are her adopted children. When the impact of the Seventies rock touring lifestyle comes up, Geffen mentions her use of diet pills; Ronstadt herself, however, doesn’t comment on that story or how it affected her. In some ways, she remains a mystery in her own documentary.
But the film nonetheless makes its case that Ronstadt, who balanced sexy coquettishness with a tough, independent streak that helped her survive in the male rock world, was more than just a chart-hogging pop singer. During an era in which sexism was rampant, she had her own version of a squad, and used her success to bolster other women in the business. Longtime friend Emmylou Harris sounds nearly on the verge of tears as she recalls the way Ronstadt helped raise her profile in the years after Harris’ musical partner Gram Parsons died. Her musical sisterhood with the likes of Bonnie Raitt is apparent; she was also an unwavering champion of female songwriters who may have otherwise remained cult figures. Yes, Ronstadt deleted an especially bleak, near-suicidal verse from Kate McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel.” She also made it the title track of her breakthrough album.
In retrospect, Ronstadt’s move away from rock and into operetta, Sinatra-era standards and south-of-the-border pop in the Eighties (compete with role-playing costumes) was of a piece with her willfulness and love of musical adventure. But they also now seem like smart career moves in the best possible way. Mad Love, the 1980 album that gave her a shorter, punkier hairdo and friskier songs, injected some desperately needed oomph into her music after 1978’s waxy Living in the USA, where the formula she and producer Peter Asher had devised for her previous albums began wearing thin. Still, along with other L.A. rock types, she wasn’t born to pogo. And her shift away from mainstream rock saved her from the desperation that befell so many of her peers as they tried, mostly in vain, to fit in with MTV.
Ronstadt’s later music and life, starting in the Nineties, are barely mentioned in the doc, which is unfortunate, since it shortchanges other non-rock genres Ronstadt explored even as she gingerly returned to country rock. (Check out Adieu False Heart, her 2006 collaboration with French Cajun singer Ann Savoy.) It’s also too bad the film doesn’t chronicle the uproar she caused in 2004 when she called Michael Moore “a great American patriot” during a Las Vegas show. Dozens of concertgoers left, trashing her posters on the way out, and Ronstadt was ejected from the casino hotel. There were few better, non-musical examples of the way she didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of her decisions and just barreled along.
The Sound of My Voice ends with a very different voice, as we see Ronstadt, filmed this year, attempting to sing a Mexican folk song with a cousin and nephew. Parkinson’s has clearly weakened her, but she still watches her relatives attentively and opens her mouth to verbalize along with them as much as possible. “This isn’t really singing,” she says afterwards, with enough humility and glimmer of humor to make you tear up. Rock stars of her generation also known for their vocal firepower are grappling with how to roar while preserving their voices. Those closing scenes remind you that Ronstadt will never again come even remotely close hitting that “Lose Again” note. Rarely has a twist of fate seemed so cruel.