If you were listening to the radio in the mid-1970s — AM or FM; pop, country, R&B or album-oriented rock — at some point you were probably listening to Linda Ronstadt.
Kids these days, with their curated playlists and SoundCloud streams, may not understand what it was like back then. A lot of music was never heard on the radio at all, while certain songs and artists made up a communal soundtrack that transcended genre and individual taste. Maybe you thought Ronstadt’s chart-topping cover of “You’re No Good” wasn’t all that great, but its instrumental riffs and declamatory chorus probably settled into your ears anyway, and more than 40 years later you’re likely to remember it as a classic.
Ronstadt was an unavoidable presence — not only on the airwaves but also on television talk shows and magazine covers. (Those things were also a much bigger deal back then, but I’ll stop with the Gen-X Grandpa Simpson routine.) She didn’t write her own songs, but she owned the ones she performed with rare authority. In “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” a new documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, someone uses the word “auteur” to describe Ronstadt’s relationship to her material, and it doesn’t seem exaggerated. Her versions of songs by Warren Zevon, Lowell George and Kate and Anna McGarrigle (to name just a few) still sound definitive.
Epstein and Friedman, whose other films include “The Celluloid Closet” and “Lovelace,” trace Ronstadt’s career in the standard music-doc manner. The singer herself, who is 73 and has Parkinson’s disease, appears on camera mostly at the beginning and the end, and narrates the story of her early years and her rise to fame in voice-over.
Her account is fleshed out by remembrances from friends and colleagues — enough to fill a Southern California wing of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There’s Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, David Geffen, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt and a couple of Eagles. (That group was formed by members of Ronstadt’s touring band.) That’s just a partial list, and they all pay tribute to Ronstadt’s talent, taste and decency.
Concert footage and old television interviews confirm their judgment. Ronstadt had a voice tender enough to beguile audiences in small clubs and mighty enough to shake the rafters of big arenas. Her charisma was tough, charming and sexy, combining various feminine pop archetypes without quite conforming to any of them.
In a clip from the ’70s, she walks along the beach near her Malibu, Calif., home, succinctly analyzing the self-destructive arrogance of the era’s male-dominated rock-n-roll culture. The political intelligence and matter-of-fact feminism that emerge in this portrait are among its most intriguing aspects. Her clear-eyed, down-to-earth thoughts on her profession, her family and American culture (musical and otherwise) make her someone you want to know better.
But “The Sound of My Voice” isn’t a tell-all, “Behind-the-Music”-style production. Ronstadt’s personal life is addressed circumspectly. Singer-songwriter J.D. Souther airs some nostalgic not-too-dirty laundry, and the story of Ronstadt’s relationship with California Gov. Jerry Brown receives some attention. (She’s shown singing “My Boyfriend’s Back” at a campaign fundraiser.) A politician dating a rock star! It seemed pretty wild at the time.
But nothing in the movie gets too wild. Compared with some of other recent movies about baby boomer musicians — “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name” — “The Sound of My Voice” goes easy on the sex and drugs. And there’s more to the story than just rock ’n’ roll. Part of what secures Ronstadt’s place in the pantheon of great 20th-century American vocalists is her eclecticism. Starting out in the ’60s at the crossroads of folk and rock, she adapted her style to the major pop trends of the next decade and a half, from country rock to New Wave.
And then she released three albums of songbook standards with the Nelson Riddle orchestra. She appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” onstage and at the movies. In 1987, she released “Canciones de mi Padre,” an album of traditional Mexican songs that explored a family heritage that many of her earliest fans and collaborators never knew she had.
Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, Ariz., her father’s hometown. He was of Mexican and German ancestry. Ronstadt’s mother was from Michigan. Ronstadt’s work, and her words in this film, testify to the multicultural, cross-pollinating vitality of American vernacular music. She shows herself to be one of its indispensable interpreters, as a vocalist and also as a thinker — covering a sprawling landscape with elegance, passion and insight.