In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to see several biographies of iconic music makers. The Journey of Johnny Cash and If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd stand out in my memory. None, however, were as emotionally impactful as Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.
This film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and opened in Austin this month at the Austin Film Society Cinema. It takes us with Ronstadt as she grew up in Tucson, Arizona, through her amazing career, and to her current career-ending battle with Parkinson’s Disease. The film draws on an amazing collection of concert footage, TV and stage appearances, home movies, behind-the-scenes photographs, and films.
The bio-flick, done with Ronstadt’s cooperation, shares her memories, her music, her friends, and thoughts about fellow creatives. Artists, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Aaron Neville share recollections. Some of those talents teared up as they shared their memories. As I watched, I also was overcome with emotion several times, but not always with sadness. I realized later that it was out of the pure joy of hearing again one of the greatest voices of the rock-and-roll era.
Spanish for Singing
She inherited the name “Ronstadt” from her German grandfather who immigrated to Mexico. Mexican culture and music were part of her family life from her earliest memories. She recalled, “They wouldn’t let us speak Spanish at school, so, I grew up thinking that English was for talking and Spanish was for singing.”
Her father was an accomplished musician and singer and she took after him. “We sang at the dinner table,” Ronstadt explained. “It was completely incorporated into our lives, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.”
She soon began performing professionally, forming a band with her brother and sister that played around Tucson. But she soon realized Los Angeles was the place to be.
She emerged into the folk-rock scene with the Stone Poneys, but soon producers wanted her to “get rid of those guys” and perform on her own. I first saw her perform in the late 1960’s at UCLA’s Royce Hall. In 1969, she released her first solo album, Hand Sown, Home Grown.
Who’s Opening for Who?
She soon became a regular at iconic Hollywood hot spots. In 1970, I saw her perform at The Troubadour. Her opening act was some singer-songwriter I had never heard of. I did note that he wrote really great lyrics. About six-months later my clock radio woke me up to Janis Joplin singing “Me and Bobby McGee.” I thought, “Hey, she stole some of that guy’s lyrics.” No. The unknown guy opening for Ronstadt was Kris Kristofferson.
She went on to share the stage with Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Neil Young. While on tour she met Emmylou Harris, which led to decades of collaboration. Four members of her back-up band went on to form a group you may have heard of: The Eagles.
Ronstadt gave exposure to the work of artists who later achieved their own fame, including Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, and Ry Cooder. In the film they talk about their friendships with her and the interpretive process. The film also includes interviews with David Geffen, John Boylan, Peter Asher, and Cameron Crowe who talk about the iconic role Ronstadt plays in music history.
Before long she had moved from intimate clubs like The Troubadour to become the first rock stadium-diva, performing before tens of thousands of fans. By the end of the 1970s, she was performing in stadiums in England, Japan, and Australia, and was on her way to selling 100 million records, creating five consecutive platinum albums, and becoming a 10-time Grammy Award winner in country, Latin and pop.
Oh, Yes, I Will
The film shows us Ronstadt observing, “The good thing about having a hit is it makes people like you. But the bad thing about having a hit is you have to sing that song over and over again, night after night, until it starts sounding like your washing machine.”
She had a solution for that. Everyone told her not to do it, but she did anyway.
First, she moved from rock to country. Then she began performing Frank Sinatra hits from The Great American Songbook. This led to collaboration and an album accompanied by Nelson Riddle.
They told her not to change again. Before long she was performing on Broadway, co-staring with Kevin Kline, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. This wasn’t just an, “Oh, look, the rock star can kind of do operetta.” She excelled at it.
Along the way, she teamed up with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Returning to her country period, they adopted the name Trio and recorded two albums, winning another Grammy.
Rock and Canciones
Towards the end of the 1980s, Ronstadt shifted again, turning to her roots and the songs she remembered her father singing. She admits to having to “learn to sing in Mexican.” She did and did such a good job that her album Canciones de Mi Padre, also won a Grammy and became the best-selling non-English album in American music history.
In the 1990s, no surprise, she continued to innovate. Returning to pop, she recorded “Somewhere Out There” for Steven Spielberg film An American Tail. Later, her duets with Aaron Neville brought her more success and awards.
Something is Wrong
In the 2000s, though, something began to go wrong. Ronstadt explains in the film how slowly singing became more difficult. She said that she began to “lose the colors” in her voice.
The last time I saw her perform live was around 2005. My wife and I went to see Ronstadt perform at the Aladdin in Las Vegas. One of my wife’s favorite songs of all time was Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.” After the concert we both felt a vague sense of disappointment. Her singing lacked energy. I thought maybe she was suffering from exhaustion.
The Parkinson’s disease began to limit her live performances, although she did perform at the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 2007. She retired in 2011.
That didn’t stop the accolades from rolling in. In that same year she was awarded a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2014, she received the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama. This year she was named a 2019 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.
The film ends with Ronstadt sitting in her home earlier this year, recalling her early life, gently singing Mexican ballads with her nephew Peter Ronstadt and cousin Bobby Ronstadt. Smiling, she comments: “I can’t let you sing this without me.” Her voice barely a whisper. “It’s not really singing,” she says. She seemed content with her home and her life.
Finally, at the end of the film, we hear her sing “The Sound of My Voice.”
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is currently playing in theaters across the country. You can watch the trailer below.