The great American singer Linda Ronstadt grew up on an Arizona ranch filled with music. On Saturday mornings, she would go to her grandparents’ house to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio, then return home to find her father singing Mexican love songs or her mom playing a Gilbert and Sullivan tune at the piano. Her brother Pete was the soloist in a boys’ choir and at age five, Linda begged him to teach her to sing vibrato. In the voiceover to the bittersweet new documentary, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of Her Voice, the singer recalls, “We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.” Ronstadt was of German-Mexican-Dutch descent and for her, shifting from one culture to another was as natural as breathing, a methodology that led to a career marked by marvelously unexpected musical left turns.
Ronstadt has sadly been forced into musical silence and early retirement due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, but her musical legacy lives on. After leaving Tucson for L.A. in 1964 at 18, she found herself sharing a house on the beach in Santa Monica for $80 a month (split three ways). She and childhood friend Bobby Kimmel formed The Stone Poneys with Kenny Edwards and before long, she had a hit song on the radio, and a request from the record company: Ditch the two guys and go solo.
The long-time directing team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) are at their best in these early stages of Ronstadt’s story, mixing priceless archival footage of the 1960s L.A. club scene with interviews with the singer’s friends and collaborators, including singer-songwriter J.D. Souther (“You’re Only Lonely”) with whom she shared a long romance. It was Souther who suggested Ronstadt hire his bass player friend Glenn Frey for her first solo band, and it was somewhere on that 12-city first tour that Frey and Ronstadt’s frizzy-haired drummer, Don Henley, got the idea for yet another new band — the Eagles.
Ronstadt, of course, put the Eagles on the map when she covered “Desperado,” and it’s this fusion of friendship and music that proves to be the lasting theme of Ronstadt’s career, particularly among fellow female artists. In a moving segment, Emmylou Harris recalls how Ronstadt was there to help her start anew after the devastating death of Harris’ musical partner, Gram Parsons.
Ronstadt had a way of changing her friend’s lives by simply singing their songs, as when she turned her friend Karla Bonoff’s modest lament, “Lose Again,” into an epic power ballad. The studio footage of this number is fantastic, by the way. Bonnie Raitt is here too, making a hit of Bonoff’s “Home” and finding an equal in Ronstadt. As music journalist turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe notes, these were women who were “running bands with guys in them” but also “looking after each other”.
An “avalanche of success” followed, along with a famous romance (with Governor Jerry Brown), and eventually, a growing musical restlessness. And so it was that the biggest pop-rock star of her generation began making those crazy left turns: starring in a Broadway production of the operetta, Pirates of Penzance; making three flawless albums of pop standards with bandleader Nelson Riddle; a trailblazing album of country duets with Harris and Dolly Parton, and most daring of all, an album of Mariachi songs, Canciones De Mi Padre, which remains the biggest selling non-English language album of all time.
In regards to her personal life, this documentary takes it lead from its subject so some things are left out. Ronstadt has two adopted children, a fact you won’t learn from this film. There’s also zero mention of her 1980s relationship with George Lucas. And yet, this most private of artists does allow the filmmakers — and herself — one brave, beautiful and vulnerable leap at the movie’s end: Linda Ronstadt sings. Just a bit, at home with her family. “This isn’t really singing,” she says, after a false start. She tries again, and this time, is carried away by the power of the song. It’s heart-clutching and makes one understand what Ronstadt’s Penzance co-star, Kevin Kline, says earlier in the film about her voice: “Celestial yet earthy. So absolutely pure. It made me cry.”
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice opens Fri., Sept. 6, at Arclight Hollywood