In the new documentary film, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Dolly Parton declares, “Linda could literally sing anything.” Over the course of the movie’s running time, we’re reminded that Dolly’s proclamation was no mere hype. Ronstadt felt comfortable and credible interpreting folk, rock and R&B (“You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved”), country (her work with Parton and Emmylou Harris on the Trio recordings), light opera, big band pop, and the Mexican music of her heritage. The film, which premieres in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre September 27, eagerly dives into her unique place in the music world, along with her diversified family background, well-publicized relationships, and ultimately, her current battle with Parkinson’s. The disease led to her retirement in 2011, and Ronstadt has not performed publicly in nearly ten years.
Like many recent docs, The Sound of My Voice weaves archival footage and vintage photos with commentary from a variety of notables who chronicle both Ronstadt’s professional and personal life. In addition to the colorful Dolly, such heavyweights as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and Ronstadt’s producer/manager Peter Asher make screen appearances and lend considerable weight to the movie. The stars offer specific observations instead of general overviews, and simply tell some great stories. Viewers will surely get a kick from songwriter J.D. Souther’s recollection of his first interaction with Ronstadt, which we won’t spoil but suffice to say it’s a pickup line that would result in stone-faced rejection in 2019. From the film, we learn that Souther and Ronstadt were quite the item in the late 1960s, and it’s apparent that Souther’s flame hasn’t quite burned out completely.
What makes the movie hum is the film footage, and the collectors and archivists ought to receive some sort of commendation. We see a priceless scene of young Ronstadt belting the Fontella Bass R&B chestnut “Rescue Me” with one of her first bands, featuring a drummer named Don Henley. There’s one especially nice piece of editing, following journalist Cameron Crowe’s assessment of Ronstadt as a “woman trailblazer, having the success of a Mick Jagger.” The scene segues into Ronstadt’s rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” at a concert. It’s all well put together and entertaining throughout.
Ronstadt was every bit a pioneer, becoming the first female solo artist of the rock era to headline and sell out large arenas. She had an unmatched string of hits in the 1970s, including “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” plus her versions of “Heat Wave” and “It’s So Easy.” Her concert ticket sales coupled with her platinum album success, fueled by her 1974 breakthrough Heart Like a Wheel, made her the highest-paid female artist in rock. But she often struggled with an industry that she admitted to being “male dominated,” as we hear in the film, and the self-indulgence of some of her male artist counterparts. Sound familiar?
Naturally, the soundtrack stands out, as we’re treated to Ronstadt’s timeless hits as well as the stories behind her recordings of “Different Drum,” where she sang lead with the Stone Poneys, “Heart Like a Wheel” and others. Jackson Browne praises Ronstadt’s capacity for interpretation, saying that, “She didn’t write songs but she made songs happen the way she wanted to hear them.”
Seeing Ronstadt’s present-day state as she deals with Parkinson’s disease is poignant to be certain, and it’s sad to think that a magnificent voice has been silenced. The segment where Emmylou Harris becomes sincerely emotional when discussing the disease will surely tug at anyone. But the film rightfully ends on a joyous note with Ronstadt’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and a grand tribute performance by some great ladies. You’ll exit singing right along.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice premieres in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre, September 27.