With the release of “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” 2019 has given us enough documentaries about 1960s and 1970s pop icons to fill a mini film festival.
And the good news is, like “Echo in the Canyon” and “Rolling Thunder Revue” and “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” this is a well-crafted and invaluable time capsule tribute to one of the most distinctive artists of a Golden Age of pop music.
Directed in capable, straightforward fashion by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and featuring voice-over narration from the artist herself, “The Sound of My Voice” is like a well-sourced and thorough video Wikipedia entry about the life and times of the now 73-year-old Ronstadt.
In quick-paced fashion, the film notes Ronstadt’s German/English/Mexican ancestry; her childhood in Arizona; her early days with the Stone Poneys; her sensational solo career and her brilliant collaborations with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton; some high-profile romances, and her involuntary retirement some 10 years ago, when the effects of Parkinson’s rendered her incapable of singing.
“I can hear [the music] in my mind, but I can’t make the sounds any more,” says Ronstadt. “Singing is complex. … I was made most aware of it by having it vanish.”
Heartbreaking words — but as the film constantly reminds us, Ronstadt gifted us with dozens of hit singles and a diverse collection of recordings in which she put her unique brand on genres from pop to rock to country to traditional Mexican music to mid-20th-century standards to Broadway show tunes.
Ronstadt was not a writer (she penned only a handful of songs in her career), but as Dolly Parton says, “She has the ability to hear a song and claim it.”
Don Henley, who was a drummer for a Ronstadt tour band before hitting it big with the Eagles, recalls the band making only a minor splash with “Desperado” — and “then Linda turned it into a classic.”
Kevin Kline, who starred with Ronstadt in “The Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway (and in the film adaptation): “When I heard her voice, it was just … gorgeous, musical, celestial yet earthy. Something so pure, it just made me cry.”
A steady stream of archival footage of Ronstadt appearing on TV shows and in concert reminds us that in addition to that amazing voice and an infectious, charming personality, she was a movie-star beautiful subject for cover stories in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, et al. — and her relationship with California governor and presidential hopeful Jerry Brown only intensified the spotlight.
Not that Ronstadt craved the attention. She loved to sing, but would have been just as happy performing in a studio or in a roomful of friends as she was onstage in front of 20,000 people.
After dazzling us with Ronstadt’s amazing versatility, which included memorable rockers such as “You’re No Good,” ballads such as “Blue Bayou,” a trilogy of classic albums with legendary bandleader-arranger Nelson Riddle and her hit rendition of “Don’t Know Much” with Aaron Neville, “The Sound of My Voice” handles Ronstadt’s later years with grace and without ever becoming maudlin.
She even sings, just a little, with the caveat, “This isn’t singing. Believe me, it’s a few notes, but it’s not really singing.”
Still. It’s a glorious thing to hear the sound of her voice.