Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

It’s acceptable to like Fleetwood Mac and Journey now, but Linda Ronstadt remains filed away as a ’70s schlock icon. For good reason, too. Michael Nesmith noted in song that Ronstadt mostly bridged a gap between Marie Osmond and Bonnie Raitt. Today, she seems more like the Me Decade’s take on Celine Dion – with a pop portfolio that sent several genres spiraling into El Lay clichés that made punk seem like a fine idea.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice sacrifices some compelling storytelling to redeem that reputation. The documentary begins with popping visuals and great archive footage that captures her rise from being a humble ‘60s folkie to a proper pop star. Soon, however, we’re looking at a parade of talking heads that remind us this is a CNN production. There’s lots of great old footage, but the only arresting imagery is Don Henley’s plastic surgery.

Sound of My Voice still manages to make Ronstadt’s story seem pretty interesting. The chronology gets jumbled, and there’s some reliable revisionist history in service of modern politics. Rock critic Robert Hilburn comes along early to insist that it was some kind of big deal for Ronstadt to leave the Stone Poneys after the early success of “Different Drum.”

“She had the nerve to leave a male band,” Hilburn intones, “and go on her own.” To be fair, Hilburn hadn’t seen the earlier footage where others were talking about how executives at Capitol had decided they’d be pushing Ronstadt as a solo artist. Any suggestion of bold feminism can’t be backed by a career that soon had her sporting low-cut blouses and hot pants while popping diet pills.

There’s also a big effort to present Ronstadt as being some kind of rock icon. In reality, she was serving as the rock ‘n roll Lola Falana. That’s forgivable, though. The audience is warned early on that there’ll be some fantasy elements. Producer and manager John Boylan shows up early to declare that record executives “always told her, ‘No, you can’t do this. You’ll ruin your career.’ She’d always tell them no, and do it anyway.”

Yeah. We’re supposed to pretend that record executives weren’t desperate for Ronstadt to shake up her sound after her album sales stalled at the start of the ‘80s. Barbra Streisand tried the same trick by opening 1985’s The Broadway Album with the sounds of protesting men.

That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to follow Ronstadt’s turns to big-band orchestrations, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Mexican balladry. And if her career doesn’t sell her as a feminist, the documentary includes plenty of moments where Ronstadt is praised for promoting female artists during her own rise to ’70s stardom. That’s during a time when J.D. Souther could pick her up after a show by suavely saying, “I think you should cook me dinner.”

There’s probably a good documentary to be made about how Ronstadt shook up the industry by insisting on reaching out to other female artists. Her longtime romance with California Gov. Jerry Brown also gets enough coverage to leave viewers wondering what’s left on the cutting room floor. On its own, Sound of My Voice succeeds at making a case for Ronstadt as an artist who always remained keenly intellectual about her own career.

The filmmakers even dare to include Ronstadt presenting a smart defense of playing South Africa while other artists ranted against Sun City. The clip also serves to remind why Sound of My Voice can’t compete with the weirdness of this year’s David Crosby: Remember My Name. That one has the inherent advantage of featuring a complex creep at its core.

Ronstadt’s own tragic twist, of course, is already established as her retirement from performing after being stricken with Parkinson’s. The filmmakers handle that sad ending by hiding their modern-day subject away from the camera. That allows the film to wrap up with a touching final scene that will pretty much leave any music fan happy to have spent 90 minutes revisiting Ronstadt’s career.