By Peg Aloi
Linda Ronstadt was every young female singer’s aspirational goddess: if you could nail “You’re No Good” or “Blue Bayou” in the car or the shower, you had practiced a lot.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Somerville Theatre, and Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Linda Ronstadt was constantly on the radio when I was growing up. I vaguely knew she had big hits that crossed back and forth among the pop, rock, and country charts. She was a rock icon to me: her voice so lusty and earthy but also so finely calibrated and controlled. And you could tell it wasn’t just the arrangements or other studio magic: this woman could sing. Ronstadt was every young female singer’s aspirational goddess: if you could nail “You’re No Good” or “Blue Bayou” in the car or the shower, you had practiced it a lot.
This new documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman opens with clips from Ronstadt’s early appearances on TV, introduced by (and sometimes singing with) the likes of Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell, and Johnny Carson. A rapid-fire shuffle of her many album covers as well as popular magazines emblazoned with her image follows — testaments to the sheer enormity of her fame. There’s a fascinating montage of her childhood, narrated by Ronstadt (as much of the film is, though we don’t see any recent video of her until the very end). Her maternal grandfather was an inventor who came up with the electric stove and toaster. His patents made him wealthy, but he spent all of his money trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease, after his wife became ill. “That’s what I have now,” Ronstadt says softly.
Growing up on her paternal grandfather’s cattle ranch in Tucson, Arizona, Ronstadt’s early years were full of music. A musician in Mexico, her grandfather moved his family to the US where he had a cattle ranch. The Ronstadt house was a soundscape of Mexican folk songs sung during chores, classical arias loved by her parents, and records of jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. Linda sang constantly. Her brother sang in a boys’ choir and taught Linda at a young age all about vibrato and phrasing (hallmarks of her later style). She moved to California in 1964, egged on by her brother, who thought Linda could easily find work as a singer in a scene booming with creativity and energy. He’d write the songs and she’d sing them; they rented a house on the beach in Santa Monica for $80 a month. Her first band, The Stone Poneys, led by guitarist Kenny Edwards, was a psychfolk trio that had some minor hits in 1967. A snippet of Ronstadt’s melancholy but sprightly “Sweet Summer Blue and Gold” captivates, a harbinger of the many musical styles she would later explore as a singer.
Folk rock was hot, and record producers were scrambling to emulate the sound of The Byrds. The Stone Poneys’ 1967 single of “Different Drum” (written by future Monkee Mike Nesmith) reached the top of the charts, followed by the album version, which had a more elaborate arrangement, including a harpsichord bridge. The song is widely thought of as Ronstadt’s first hit record and her name is featured prominently on the album cover (something other folk bands didn’t do with their female singers in those days). When the Stone Poneys disbanded in 1969 (Edwards wanted to find a guru, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bobby Kimmel wished to start a club), Linda continued to hit the open mics in the clubs that, in those days, could make or break a young artist’s debut. She first heard Ry Cooder (a frequent commentator in the film) there, and he inspired her to stay in California. Music history buffs may already know that greats like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Laura Nyro, and Jackson Browne got their start at the Monday night “Hootenanny” at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. Rock critic and director Cameron Crowe (the inspiration for Almost Famous) opines that Ronstadt’s talent and potential were the talk of the town.
Ronstadt’s first solo album came out in 1969, with Don Henley drumming. He later met Glenn Frey, who was in a duo with Ronstadt’s boyfriend JD Souther, and, while on tour with Ronstadt, the two decided to form The Eagles. Henley and Souther, among other music luminaries, including Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Dolly Parton, praise Ronstadt’s work and provide insights into the music scene’s evolution during the decades over which her career spanned. Over the years, Ronstadt intersected and collaborated with some of rock, pop, and country music’s most iconic performers; she also worked with some of the world’s best producers (such as Peter Asher, who worked alongside the Beatles at Apple Records in A&R). The ’70s was a whirlwind of her albums going platinum (five in a row, more than any other female artist had achieved at that time), huge stadium shows, and constant media appearances.
Her brief relationship with California governor Jerry Brown captured headlines also. One talk show host asks if Ronstadt should be concerned that many saw her performance in South Africa as controversial. She responds with an extended rant, saying that if she disagreed with the government of every place she performed she’d never perform anywhere. She calls Boston “an extremely racist city.” Ronstadt also offers opinions on the hostility of the music industry toward women, a sentiment echoed by Parton and Harris, with whom she collaborated on a popular album called Trio in 1987. She also laments the unfortunate tendency of so many musicians to become isolated and destroy themselves with drugs. Ronstadt had her own brief struggle with diet pills, a common problem among women in the ’70s — these pills were essentially over-the-counter speed.
Ronstadt grew tired of doing stadium shows and sought a different direction. I remember in 1981, my senior year in high school, when she starred in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway (for which she won a Tony award). It was a big deal for a pop star to take that step because, even though Gilbert and Sullivan is considered light opera, the role required considerable vocal range and dexterity. Ronstadt delivered beautifully. (Her keynote song in that show, “Poor Wand’ring One,” is a particularly brutal challenge to sing. A number of my soprano compatriots and I naturally chose to work on it for voice class assignments.) But it was her career as a popular singer that moved and inspired us even more. To this day, being able to cover any of Ronstadt’s hits in respectable fashion at a karaoke bar is considered a brave and grand achievement.
For that’s what our love of pop idols is all about, really: not just the feelings about love and loneliness they stir up in their songs, but the empathy they invite as human beings who are living the dream of stardom. Ronstadt’s impressive skills as a song stylist make her more enduring than others who wrote and performed tunes they’d written. That is no small achievement in an industry that has normalized the manufacture of female pop stars who don’t write their own songs. For performers such as Madonna, Britney Spears, and Beyoncé, visual imagery is as much a part of their art as their music. Ronstadt’s originality as an interpreter of songs — with her versatile, powerful voice — was always more significant than her image. Still, her presentation was also beguiling. Ronstadt’s feminine look was soft: her hair in a glossy shag, simple jewelry, jeans, and boots. Her iconic cover photo for Rolling Stone, shot by Annie Liebowitz, is a stunning depiction of female beauty and strength, a fusion of vulnerability and sensuality. A red silk camisole, one strap dropped down on her shoulder, a thin gold chain with a cross pendant, her hair pinned up with loose tendrils escaping, her lips parted, her dark eyes glossy with passion and focus. But her inimitably charismatic singing elevated the airways of pop radio; her songs, full of pain and pathos, delivered with such perfect control that they always sounded natural, intimate and immediate.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice surely leaves out many things. For example, it doesn’t delve very deeply into Ronstadt’s personal life. But the film serves up a dizzying amount of video clips, including super-cheesy music videos from the ’80s. The singer gave her final vocal concert in 2009; she gave up singing when she lost her vocal control, the result of Parkinson’s disease. Years later, in 2013, she was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 40 years after the heyday of her fame in the ’70s. It is cruelly ironic that she is honored by singers young and old (Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, and Carrie Underwood) in this documentary via a powerful rendition of her hit song that asks the question raised by such a long-delayed honor: “When Will I Be Loved?”
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.