Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is an entertaining, but non-critical
documentary about one of the 70s biggest musical icons and sex symbols. Since
Ronstadt’s lyrics sometimes touched upon female self-empowerment themes, she fit
in perfectly with the 70s feminist movement, and she became a woman’s lib icon
alongside Aretha Franklin and Helen Reddy.
Ronstadt did not always receive the respect from rock critics and the musical
intelligentsia (except for Robert Hilburn who seemed to worship her) that she
deserved because. Perhaps this is because she was primarily a cover artist or
interpreter which went against the popular rock critic cult of authenticity.
This helps explain why it took her so long for to get into the Rock’n Roll Hall
of Fame (and it may be the reason why the Monkees may never get in.)
The directors, of the film (Epstein and Friedman) also made HOWL, about the late
great beat poet Allen Ginsberg (starring James Franco), and Lovelace (with
Amanda Siegfried) about the tragic life of a porn star. Linda Ronstadt: The
Sound of My Voice is their most hyped and biggest profile project.
The film includes informative interviews with many of her significant musical
collaborators such as Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton (they eventually recorded
an album together), Karla Bonoff (who lamented a bit at being relegated to being
a backup singer), as well as Don Henley and Glenn Frey who met when they were in
her backup band (so you can blame her for The Eagles.) At first Ronstadt did not
know whether she should resent Emmylou Harris because she did everything
Ronstadt wanted to achieve better but they ended up as close friends. At one
point she saw an early show of The Doors and she was impressed but the said that
they will only make it if they got rid of the lead singer (I am paraphrasing
here) who she saw as a liability.
The movie traces Ronstadt’s progress from a naïve, hippy folkie member of Stone
Poneys, to her early 70s explorations of country pop rock, to her more produced
superstar records when she emerged as a pop rock queen to her theatrical
triumphs in Pirates of Penzance. The movie shows her Mexican period but slights
or ignores later periods of her work including her Cajun era.
The film ends with the probable permanent deterioration of her voice which led
to her retirement. Ironically this performer who is known primarily for her big
voice which is a perfect vehicle for stadium shows can never play a big venue
again because of Parkinson’s disease.
There are some negative or controversial parts of the movie which are
under-emphasized or slighted. Ronstadt had a political side and she caused a pre
Dixie Chicks fan revolt when she called film maker Michael Moore a “great
American hero” in a Las Vegas show before a conservative audience, but we don't
hear anything about it in the film. Also although she did popularize the songs
of some significant song writers such as Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello she
sometimes did it by making the songs more mainstream and less edgy. When she
covered a Kate and Anna McGarrigle she deleted the all the suicide theme lines.
Also when punk fans saw her adopt a punky hairstyle in videos in the early 80s
we all found it somewhat phony, desperate, and laughable and forced. Linda was
an excellent singer with a great voice but she was as far away from punk or
anything alternative as anyone in music. Also she was one of the few (others
included Paul Simon) who went to South Africa to perform when most of the music
industry was boycotting it because of apartheid. This is barely mentioned. I
don’t think Steve Van Zandt would have approved.
The PG-13 rating on this movie shows the extreme stupidity and general
uselessness of the rating system which always seems to be harder on small, Indy
films. The most violent superhero and action films often received a PG-13 rating
(there was even a PG-13 zombie film) but any Indy film with even the most
harmless material often get the same rating. There is nothing even remotely
offensive about this film apart from a few implied references to drug use and
sex and it got the same rating as Dark Knight which was filled with violent
Despite these reservations, the film serves as a decent introduction to her work
which is definitely worthy of exploration. I am not sure that this will end up
being the definitive Ronstadt film.