As a teenager in Toronto in the 1970s, one of the things we all looked forward to every year was the three weeks of nightly summer concerts at the CNE Bandstand (“the Ex”). On August 31, 1976, a few mates and I went to one such concert but, that night, our reasons for going were different. They were all going to see the main act – The Band – but I was going for the opener – Linda Ronstadt. I had been a fan of hers since her breakthrough album, “Heart Like a Wheel”, came out almost two years earlier. To be honest, I don’t remember much about The Band’s performance that night except for their song, “The Weight”, which we all sang along to, but I do remember Ronstadt’s performance very clearly. I had a serious rock star crush going on back then.
The documentary, LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, chronicles the iconic singer’s life and career from the time she was a little girl in Tucson singing along to whatever was playing on her family’s radio or hi-fi. That variety of genres – pop, rock ‘n roll, country, R&B, Gilbert & Sullivan and Mexican folk – shaped Ronstadt’s vocal styling and musical choices throughout her 45-year career. Almost from the moment she arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 when she was 17, she made her mark on the music scene, starting out as the lead singer for the group, The Stone Poneys. Their song, “Different Drum” (written by The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith), reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 1975, her fifth solo album, “Heart Like a Wheel”, hit the top spot on the Billboard 200 album chart and Ronstadt earned her first of what would be 12 Grammy awards. Just three years later, Ronstadt was rock music’s highest paid female performer. Although she mostly sang other people’s songs, Ronstadt had the ability to make each song sound like her own, whether she was gently cooing about love or belting out her heartache and pain.
Having conquered rock, Ronstadt defied critics and sceptics, and turned her attention to another of her loves – musical theatre. In 1980, she starred in the Broadway revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” alongside Kevin Kline (SOPHIE’S CHOICE; THE BIG CHILL; A FISH CALLED WANDA; BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), a role that earned her a Tony nomination. Her career continued its upward trajectory over the years with Ronstadt checking off one genre box after another. “Canciones de Mi Padre”, her 1987 album of traditional Mexican folk songs, became the biggest-selling non-English language album in US music history.
Directed by two-time Oscar winner Rob Epstein (COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT; THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK) and Jeffrey Friedman (PARAGRAPH 175; COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT), LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE plays like a love song to this beloved icon. A cavalcade of music legends, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, JD Souther, Glenn Frey, Aaron Neville, David Geffen and Cameron Crowe, recall their experiences with Ronstadt over the years, waxing lyrically about her voice, her versatility, her fearlessness and her perfectionism. Although her relationship with then California governor Jerry Brown is mentioned, he is curiously not interviewed in the film. At last year’s Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, the film took home two awards – Best Music Documentary and Most Compelling Living Subject Documentary.
Ronstadt has now retired from singing professionally due to what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but has only recently been reclassified as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), though the film doesn’t spend much time discussing the singer’s health. Instead, it focuses on what an exceptional talent she is. In my own way, I suppose I knew that in 1976.
LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE is available for rental and purchase on Amazon Prime and iTunes. It’s a wonderful film, especially for Ronstadt’s many fans.
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