'Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice' Paints an Authoritative Portrait at Tribeca Film Festival 2019

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Linda Ronstadt photographed in Amsterdam in 1976.

In recent years, we’ve seen a slow but encouraging shift in the reassessment of the rock canon, as women have been reinstated or rightly celebrated for their contributions to the genre. Now, the inimitable Linda Ronstadt gets her exquisite turn in a new documentary film, based on her 2013 book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. Ronstadt retired from music in 2011, a year before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and The Sound of My Voice is a fawning retrospective of her artistic might.

The film adheres to a familiar arc: It's resplendent with archival material and chronologically traces her rise in Los Angeles clubs to opening for Neil Young and eventually packing many of those arenas herself in the years that followed. The talking heads are luminous, with David Geffen, Ry Cooder, J.D. Souther, Don Henley and, of course, Cameron Crowe, all weighing in with their recollections.

Present-day Ronstadt only plays a minor role in the film, appearing briefly at the beginning and end of the picture and in voiceovers. The bulk of the narration is stitched together from more than fifty years’ worth of interviews, a triumph of both research and clever storytelling.

The portrait of Ronstadt that her friends and colleagues paint is glowing enough to give Thomas Kinkade a run for his money. They speak in awe of her technical prowess, which is electrifying even in decades-old footage. But even the accolades heaped upon Ronstadt are shaded by gender: the men in the picture most frequently praise her vocal power and sexual magnetism, but the women reveal more personal details. Bonnie Raitt, Karla Bonoff, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris all speak to Ronstadt’s fierce loyalty and empathy as a friend, as well as her profound determination to define her work on her own terms. In an era of music-industry masculinity run amok, Ronstadt was a bulwark against the bullshit.

And what a body of work she built! Buoyed by her runaway success, Ronstadt had the rare opportunities to embark on the creative opportunities she wanted -- taking on the lead soprano role in an early-eighties production of Pirates of Penzance, three albums’ worth of jazz standards, and an album of traditional Mariachi songs. At a glance, Ronstadt’s mix of country, rock, pop, and folk sensibilities might look like someone who couldn’t make up her mind, but each of her projects was connected to a meaningful piece of her eclectic musical background: the Gilbert and Sullivan numbers her mother sang at home, the Mexican folk music of her father and his family.

For all of the effusive praise lavished on Ronstadt, The Sound of My Voice gives an authoritative picture of the singer as a profoundly talented woman whose artistic ambition and creative vision made her one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman freely admitted their own deep affection for Ronstadt, citing her among their first-ever record purchases as young men.

Sheryl Crow closed the premiere with a short set, running through a handful of Ronstadt’s biggest hits -- “When Will I Be Loved,” “Tumbling Dice” and “You’re No Good” -- before introducing her own “My Favorite Mistake” with a self-deprecating “womp, womp.” Crow gushed about Ronstadt’s influence on her own work (and just minutes before, she’d appeared on screen in the credits, performing with Raitt, Harris, Stevie Nicks and others at Ronstadt’s 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction). But even Crow recognized the futility of the exercise, noting how “only an idiot” would step up to play Ronstadt songs to a crowd that had just been listening to the real deal for nearly an hour and a half. Indeed, Crow’s versions felt flat and muted in comparison to Ronstadt’s scorching turns.

The Sound of My Voice is beautiful but bittersweet: it captures Ronstadt’s spirit and essence in a manner that feels overdue and essential, but as Crow’s set exhibited, it was a stinging reminder of Ronstadt’s halted career. It’s not a case of Ronstadt never really getting her due -- she sold millions upon millions of records and enjoyed a massively successful music career. Rather, The Sound of My Voice makes a succinct, powerful case for Ronstadt’s status as a twentieth-century music icon. It’s just hard to believe it took someone so long to wrap it up in one package.