Raised in a musical household, it was perhaps inevitable that a talented young woman who loved to sing would sprout wings and fly away to stardom.
In Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman chart the life and career of Linda Ronstadt, from her humble beginnings in New Mexico to the heights of musical stardom in the 1970s. It wasn’t as easy as she made it look.
For those like myself who came of age in that decade, Ronstadt’s songs were etched into memory via transistor radios. The tightly-produced pop songs, built around insanely catchy musical hooks and madly insistent choruses, were marvels of wonder. What tied it all together, though, was the voice that cut through, a truly beautiful voice that I did not fully appreciate until now.
The film’s title directs well-deserved attention to Ronstadt’s voice, an instrument that she wielded with grace and beauty, making every song she sang into an expression of her inner strength, including those that been sung before, and made famous by, other singers. Even acclaimed singer/songwriters acknowledge that Ronstadt’s interpretations made the songs she sang her own; it’s the phrasing, the way she curls her voice around the notes and the melody and the rhythm.
She did all this while manifesting her individual femininity in a musical environment that was heavily weighted toward chauvinistic male behavior and stereotypical masculine attitudes. The scales were tipped against her, as industry executives and musicians pushed her toward an old-fashioned, out of date role as a singer. Yet she continually pushed back and followed her own musical path, embracing musical theater and her own Mexican musical roots.
She favored casual clothing and hairstyles, doing little to call attention to her outward appearance. As a teen, I thought of her as a ‘girl next door’ type, the sort of person I’d want as a friend, and that was all communicated through her songs and the personality she exuded throughout her major stardom.
Jam-packed with interviews conducted with musical figures I first recognized from my youth, people like individual members of the Eagles (who first met when playing in Ronstadt’s touring band), Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and many more, the doc puts things into musical perspective, especially as it relates to female artists in and around rock music of the era. Ronstadt admits to her own mistakes, and expresses regret that she got caught up in the excesses of the time, especially when on the road and surrounded by behavior that was driven by the unique demands upon touring musicians.
As a documentary, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is not much different from other, similar, music-themed biographies. Epstein and Friedman are experienced filmmakers, and they keep the pace quick as she spotlight stays on the singer, who narrates her own story.
So it comes back to the film’s subject, and I cannot pretend to any objectivity here. I have not sought out her music for many years, but this film instantly made me want to renew my acquaintance, which I am happily doing even as I write these words.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice will open in Dallas at the Magnolia Theater on Friday, September 13.