Documentary Review: A pop legend in winter, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”

Nobody is likely to reinvent the biographical pop music documentary, so the difference between good films in the genre generally just boils down to taste.

You love Bill Withers, or Streisand or Hendrix, Dylan or Keith Richards or Linda Ronstadt, that increases your engagement with the film.

Maybe not Neil Young, or especially David Crosby. But as has been proven, you can make a pretty good film about how nobody loves David Crosby.

So for a fan, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is a lot more than a quick trip through her career and her life, even if it offers few deep insights into her psyche and to others might seem just an exercise in Boomer musical nostalgia.

For the Beastie Boys/Beyoncé/Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift generations, she probably barely moves the needle.

But man, there was no bigger star of her day, no greater interpreter of pop, folk, country and even Mariachi standards spanning many generations, no bigger voice than Linda Ronstadt.

“Linda could literally sing anything,” her “Trio” colleague and admirer Dolly Parton says. And yes, she could.

She did it with little of what today passes for “showmanship” — a little girl-next-door sexiness, the occasional Cub Scout uniform stage costume. Ronstadt became a superstar, a pioneering Woman of Rock, with just that voice — big and soft, a multi-octave range, glorious phrasing, a “song stylist” so “sharp” as onetime rock critic turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe puts it, that it didn’t matter who actually composed the songs, Ronstadt took “ownership” of them.

And at the peak of her fame, she backed away from Arena Rock tours and dabbled in operetta, Mexican folk ballads and classics from the Big Band Era “Great American Songbook.”

Kevin Kline, her co-star in “The Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway and in the movie, recalls hearing her at the first rehearsal, this “bel canto soprano…celestial, yet Earthy…She made me cry.”

He wasn’t alone.

“The Sound of My Voice,” made for CNN Films and reaching theaters through Greenwich Entertainment, tracks Ronstadt’s life in the standard ways. The now 73 year-old retired singer goes back generations to her Mexican grandfather and father, singers both — to her maternal inventor-grandfather, and the maternal grandmother who had the illness that ended Ronstadt’s singing career — Parkinson’s Disease.

That’s the bittersweet arc of the story — a musical childhood, a circuitous path to fame, glory topping glory, then an abrupt end to life on the stage.

Rondstadt was a wondrously versatile folk rock/country rock star who grew up on operetta and “Canciones de Mi Padre,” left Tuscon for LA so that she could form a band, had a hit and promptly broke up the band to become a solo superstar, always marching to a “Different Drum.”

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”) didn’t find much controversy in her story, just a woman who sang for years before getting a foot in the door and who achieved fame as an adult, poised, articulate and quite smart woman. How else could she have fronted an all-male band, held her own with pushy record companies and producers?

Yeah, she backed into many of her hits (she hated the arrangements of “Different Drum” and “You’re No Good,” and others). That she owns those miscalculations just adds to her lifelong disarming charm.

Look at these old TV interviews, fencing with interviewers, politically astute (especially while dating California Governor and presidential aspirant Jerry Brown), getting her way in a sexist, male-dominated business.

And then there’s the music, the songs that made her “The Queen,” Bonnie Raitt marvels, “the Beyoncé of her day.” Lilting love songs such as “A Long, Long Time,” growling covers of “When Will I Be Loved?” and the like — duets, trios, Mariachi, all leading to record-setting sales and Grammy after Grammy after Grammy.

She wasn’t the greatest torch singer ever, but she didn’t embarrass herself by tackling ballads and torch songs made famous by Sinatra and others on a couple of “Great American Songbook” CDs, released just as digital recording arrived to preserve that wondrous tone and range for all time.

I used to take her “What’s New?” compact disc around to electronics stores, choosing audio gear and speakers for myself and friends just by how well the brand reproduced Ronstadt and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.

Her contemporaries, a critic or two, and many many collaborators show up in “The Sound of My Voice,” with Don Henley recalling how The Eagles basically formed out of her road band in the early ’70s, record label chiefs such as David Geffen suggesting the shy Ronstadt “lacked confidence” (as if), collaborator/songwriter and former lover J.D. Souther delivering anecdotes about her eclectic musical tastes and her approachable, exotic allure.

We forget that she used to sing barefoot on stage, a hippy-folkie who got rich and famous a decade after the ’60s were buried. We can’t fathom an era where female singers in the field were rare enough that they didn’t compete and back-stab, but bonded and became lifelong friends.

But we remember the songs, the albums full of material she heard, uncovered and made her own — tunes by the McGarrigle Sisters, Karla Bonoff, Warren Zevon and even Roy Orbison, The Everlys, Buddy Holly, The Eagles (“Desperado”) and The Rolling Stones.

Come to “The Sound of My Voice” for the nostalgia, if you must. But come away impressed by her decades of expert dissection of the singer’s craft in TV interviews, her unpretentious sophistication, and her defiant pursuit of work that that displayed artistry and artistic and personal integrity.

In the Golden Age of the singer-songwriter, she never really got her due. Industry acclaim, sure. “Cool” and “hip?” Not so much.

She earns even that cachet here, and so much more.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and drug material

Cast: Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, David Geffen, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Cameron Crowe

Credits: Written and directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman A Greenwich Entertainment/CNN Films release.

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