Review: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Bill Newcott reviews the tuneful, sometimes melancholy documentary about a singer whose voice was taken too soon.

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Stars: Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Aaron Neville

Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

For 35 precious years, the world reveled in the lilt of Linda Ronstadt’s voice — and then it was gone. This tuneful, sometimes melancholy documentary is packed with classic performances, adoring testimonies, and intimate home movie moments, but you can’t walk away without the sense that although Ronstadt’s career ended too soon, no amount of success would have given the infinitely insecure singer peace of mind.

The saddest list in modern music is that of those whose voices were stilled too soon by death: Buddy Holly, Harry Chapin, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and the rest. Nearly as sobering is the chronicle of voices robbed from still-living performers in their prime: Harry Nilsson, Julie Andrews…and Ronstadt, who has not performed in more than a decade due to Parkinson’s disease.

Although she can’t sing anymore, Ronstadt provides a spirited narrative to this documentary following her childhood, early struggles, and skyrocket to fame.

The singer’s insights — and those of many of her collaborators and friends including Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Aaron Neville — are incisive and revealing. But happily, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman wisely let Ronstadt’s music do most of the talking, offering generous portions of performances rare and immortal.

You don’t reach the level of stardom Ronstadt did without a white-hot fire of blind ambition, and although the film paints a portrait of an artist hell-bent on success, it’s also clear she was also forever doubtful of her own abilities.

Not that she ever backed off from taking a chance. The rock-and-roll diva astonished Broadway audiences when she trilled her way through Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. And recording industry bigwigs warned she’d be throwing her career away if she insisted on releasing an album of classic Mexican songs. Ronstadt, whose father was part Mexican, did it anyway. The resulting double-platinum album became the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history.

Telling the story of her darkest days, Ronstadt recalls the bewilderment she felt when, in the early 2000s, she started losing her voice. In 2011 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a result, she said, “I cannot sing a note.”

As if offering us a small reward for sticking with her through the story of her highs and lows, in a profoundly moving coda Ronstadt joins a nephew and cousin — a bit haltingly but beautifully, still — in singing a Mexican folk song.

“This isn’t really singing,” she protests softly. But there’s more to singing than hitting the notes.

Featured image: Photo Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

 

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