“Linda could literally sing anything.” This ringing endorsement comes from none other than Dolly Parton, just one of the famous fans offering a reverent word in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s new documentary, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. It’s no empty compliment from an old friend: Ronstadt dabbled in—and more or less mastered—all kinds of styles, from country to rock to jazz standards to opera to traditional Mexican music. Linda Ronstadt really could sing anything.
So why, despite all her multi-platinum records, has she remained critically underrated? It was only after Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s diagnosis in December 2012 that she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a biased barometer of one’s importance to be sure, but an institution she should have belonged to a lot sooner. This November marks 10 years since Ronstadt, now 72, gave her final concert—her illness has rendered her unable to sing properly—but in the absence of her voice, the documentary aims to reclaim Ronstadt’s rightful position as one of the most gifted vocalists of our time. Based on her 2013 book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, and filled with flattering anecdotes from well-known collaborators, the film is stitched together with archival performance footage that’s worth seeing any day. Mostly, The Sound of My Voice is a welcome reminder of Ronstadt’s can-do-anything spirit.
Ronstadt had this gift of breathing new life into other people’s songs. Her breakout arrived, in 1967, in the form of a cover: Her band, the Stone Poneys, gender-flipped the monogamy-deflecting “Different Drum,” first recorded by the Greenbriar Boys. The notes sound fuller and the words carry more emotional weight on Ronstadt’s version, leaving the listener pining even as she states upfront, “I’m not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.” In the documentary, Dolly attests that when you love a song as much as Linda loved those she reinterpreted, they basically become your own. When you hear an already familiar tune sung by Ronstadt, it’s as if you’re hearing it for the first time. On “Blue Bayou,” one of her most famous covers, she wrings out a more lovelorn performance than even Roy Orbison could. When she dives into the chorus, her voice lifts up out of the darkness like a sudden revelation. She never quivers, but the heart of the listener does.
Ronstadt’s penchant for covers is well known; less obvious to younger generations is the fact that she was a bit of a shape-shifter. As the doc chronicles, she developed a diverse musical palate through family members: her love of folk and country came from her sister, while her mother’s preference for Gilbert and Sullivan informed her participation in the stage and screen revivals of The Pirates of Penzance during the early 1980s. Her Hispanic heritage on her dad’s side was rarely acknowledged until she decided to revisit the music of her childhood in 1987, with a mariachi album called Canciones de Mi Padre. It’s also fascinating to see how she came up in the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene of L.A. in the late ’60s and early ’70s, opening for people like Neil Young.
Ronstadt was among these so-called musical geniuses, but she found herself constantly needing to prove herself, or being contextualized by her gender. She was misconstrued by the public and the press as someone who repackaged songs by men with her dreamy eyes, pouty lips, and perfectly shaggy bangs. Even as she was rising to fame, Ronstadt said she could sense that her touring band—comprised of all men—found it significantly less cool to back a woman singer. In fact, one of her first backing bands went off and formed the Eagles, gaining greater acclaim in just a few years’ time.
She could be confident and stubborn, pushing back when warned about the consequences of her career choices, but she was also humble and often insecure. A few times in The Sound of My Voice, she admits faults in her vision. She initially thought the jangly instrumentals on “Different Drum” didn’t work and that “You’re No Good” sounded too much like a Beatles song, but both went on to be crucial hits for her. Ronstadt was, according to producer Peter Asher, “confident about her ideas, not about her singing”—perhaps a surprise, given just how beautifully self-assured her performances were. If she saw people whispering during her shows, she’d assume the worst: that they were critiquing her voice.
Being the only woman in the room in so many situations also brought on a different kind of self-doubt. In a voiceover during the film, Ronstadt recalls first encountering Emmylou Harris and becoming struck with envy because she was another brown-haired, bright-eyed singer with a country flair. Ronstadt decided to befriend, rather than belittle, and became one of Harris’ biggest supporters. They would, of course, go on to collaborate with Dolly Parton on the legendary Trio albums, forming what was one of the first all-female supergroups. Ronstadt was a woman who supported other women, even when the industry lent such little room for them to succeed. She was un-diva-like, happy to sing backup harmony for Parton and simply share the stage with her personal idols. There was one thing Ronstadt was unrelenting about, though, and it was her desire to freely explore whatever genres she pleased, be it straight-up country with her girls or mariachi canciones with her family.
It is the latter style of music that she still gravitates toward during private performances. The film ends on this aching note: a small living room gathering of Ronstadt and her relatives. She sings softly, shakily, and then clarifies, “This isn’t really singing.” Though the moment is as graceful as it can be, there’s something so sad about it because we know what Ronstadt was capable in her prime. That is what makes The Sound of My Voice useful as a documentary: It collects a wealth of artifacts that will help us to never forget just that.
The Sound of My Voice premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival late last month and will air on CNN later this year.