April 27, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.
Back in the days when VH1 embraced nostalgia and classic rock artists, the documentary series “Behind the Music”—which focused on a different artist per episode—became one of the network’s flagship shows. Grammy-winning singer Linda Ronstadt never did a “Behind the Music” episode, but the documentary film “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” looks like it could’ve been part of that series.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the early years of “Behind the Music” had had some fascinating and thoroughly researched episodes before the series became a watered-down publicity showcase. “Behind the Music” required the participation of the artist (or artist’s estate if the artist was deceased) and the use of the artist’s music. The artist’s story was told in chronological order, and followed a familiar formula of describing the artist’s rise to fame, having successful hits, struggling with various personal issues while at the top of their game, and (depending on the artist) either overcoming those issues, succumbing to personal demons, or trying to stage a comeback. The story is told through new interviews with the artist and people close to the artist, as well as archival footage, music videos and personal behind-the-scenes footage.
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is a very traditional documentary in that sense, except that for most of the movie, her new interviews are in voiceover. Ronstadt, who retired from performing in 2009, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, and she rarely does interviews these days. The other people who have new interviews for this movie include Jackson Browne; J.D. Souther (who dated Ronstadt in the 1970s); Don Henley (who was her drummer before co-founding the Eagles); Ry Cooder; music-journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe; John Boylan (Ronstadt’s longtime producer); Peter Asher (Ronstadt’s former manager); David Geffen (whose Asylum Records released Ronstadt’s earliest solo albums); former Warner Bros. Records chief Joe Smith (who worked with Ronstadt at the height of her fame); Kevin Kline (her “Pirates of Penzance” leading man on Broadway); and Ronstadt’s Trio band mates Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.
All of them appear on camera, and speak highly of Ronstadt. There are vivid descriptions of Ronstadt being a supportive friend and collaborator, with a tendency to be a perfectionist when it came to her music. Several of interviewees mention that she was plagued with a life-long insecurity about her voice “not being good enough,” and she had anxiety over doing live performances. The movie also has a good archival selection of Ronstadt performing. Some of her biggest hits featured in the documentary include “When Will I Be Loved,” “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou.”
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” chronicles her entire life story, from her childhood in Arizona to her early singing career as the lead singer of the California folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys (whose biggest hit song was “Different Drum”) to her solo career where she became the best-selling female rock star of the 1970s to her later years where she branched out into other forms of music. One of the documentary’s best achievements is reminding people of Ronstadt’s extraordinary musical versatility, as she proved to be talented in big band music (the “What’s New” album with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra), Broadway music (she received a Tony nomination for “The Pirates of Penzance”), Latin music (her “Canciones de Mi Padre” album, which was a nod to her Mexican roots), country music (her work with Trio) and adult-contemporary pop, including the smash hit “Don’t Know Much,” her ballad duet with Aaron Neville.
As for her personal struggles—besides having self-confidence issues about her talent—at the height of her fame, “Linda’s thing was diet pills,” according to Geffen, who says she took diet pills and speed to keep her weight down and to have enough energy for her grueling schedule. In retrospect, Ronstadt says that her drug use at the time caused paranoia that affected her personal relationships and her ability to communicate well.
Ronstadt also talks openly in new interviews and in archival footage about the sexism she and other female rock artists experienced in the male-dominated music business. Her romance with politician Jerry Brown is also mentioned—she says their breakup was mainly caused by their busy schedules keeping them apart—but as her former boyfriend Souther puts it, “Neither one of us is built for marriage or long-term relationships.” (Ronstadt, who has never married, has an adopted son and daughter, who are now adults. Her children are not mentioned in the movie.)
In the documentary, Ronstadt is calmly accepting about having Parkinson’s disease, which she says has given her a new perspective about not focusing on death but how she’s going to live before she dies. In the movie, her Trio band mate Harris begins to cry when she says that although Ronstadt doesn’t miss doing concerts, “I think she misses singing with her friends.”
Just when you think that you’re not going to see the present-day Ronstadt on camera and are never going to hear her sing again, in true “Behind the Music” fashion, she appears on camera during the last 15 minutes of the film, where she’s shown singing in Spanish with her nephew Peter Ronstadt accompanying her on guitar. The footage was filmed in 2019, according to a caption shown in the movie. Ronstadt says because she’s singing in harmony, and not singing lead vocals, she doesn’t consider it “real singing.” Still, the movie has what might be one of the last publicly released performances of Ronstadt singing after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
In February 2019, Ronstadt’s “Live in Hollywood” album (a recording of a concert she did in 1980) became her first live album ever to be officially released. “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is essential viewing for any of her fans, and it’s worth seeing for anyone who appreciates knowing more about a very talented and unique singer.
UPDATE: Greenwich Entertainment will release “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” on September 2, 2019.