Everyone knows Linda Ronstadt is a phenomenal singer, but she sings so effortlessly that it's easy to take for granted just how good she really is. Unlike a Celine Dion or an Aretha Franklin – great singers who bowl you over immediately with the power of their voices – Ronstadt's tone and range sneak up on you. After seeing the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, taking her for granted ever again is impossible.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman interview the singer, who has stopped recording and performing due to Parkinson's disease. She offers commentary as the film traces her career from the early folk days up through her retirement. The main takeaway is that, time and again, people advised her not to do things, which she went ahead and did anyway. After establishing herself in folk music, she moved to rock, made a trip through the New Wave in the '80s, dabbled in country, and even did an album of traditional Spanish songs. Her self-confidence is what most impresses. Here is a performer who knows what she can do and do well. An ability to trust her own instincts has clearly served her better than the advice of any record company executive.
Some of Ronstadt's famous friends/admirers appear on-camera to celebrate her talent. Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Dolly Parton are among them. They're all in awe of her – a testament to how respected she is. These interviews reinforce the overall theme of the film, i.e. that by following her heart, Ronstadt was able to defy conventions. People respond to artistic integrity, and she defines it.
The Sound of My Voice delves into its subject's personal life too, although much more cautiously. Ronstadt's relationship with Governor Jerry Brown, for example, is mentioned but largely skimmed over. What drew this unlikely couple together? What tore them apart? Ronstadt's drug use is similarly rushed through. In the same year that music documentaries David Crosby: Remember My Name and Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love dig deep into how personal issues intertwine with music, it's a slight disappointment that this one doesn't follow suit.
Nevertheless, the music is obviously great, and Ronstadt's career is fascinating enough to sustain a feature-length film. Considering that she recorded over several decades, the doc's look at how she navigated changes in the industry proves invaluable. In the final minutes, we finally see the singer as she looks today. Family life has replaced music. Still, it's clear that the toll Parkinson's has taken frustrates her. When you're born to sing, not singing is its own form of torture. She's upbeat, though, which seems entirely true to her essential nature. And even if she never sings another note, the songs she gave us over the years will endure.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is an appealing celebration of a musical artist who can literally sing anything and knock your socks off.
out of four
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.