I remember Linda Ronstadt as the singer of such bittersweet ballads as “Different Drum” (1967) and “Long, Long Time” (1970). They would fill me with the pleasant melancholy of lost or unrequited love — not that I had ever experienced such things, being only a callow teenager.
At that time Ronstadt’s five-decade-long career was just getting started. As related in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s brisk, comprehensive, if sometimes superficial “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” it passed through many incarnations, until she retired in 2011 after Parkinson’s disease stole the power and nuance that made her voice so distinctive.
Narrated for the most part by Ronstadt herself, her story begins on a ranch near Tucson, where she grew up singing with her siblings the canciones beloved by her father, who was of Mexican descent. “We thought people sang in Spanish and spoke in English,” she recalls. “We were punished if we spoke Spanish in the playground.”
Ambitious and gifted, at 18 she headed to Los Angeles and joined the Stone Poneys, an up-and-coming folk-rock band. In an awkward appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” she’s asked what “Stone Poneys” means. Flustered, she doesn’t answer. The film doesn’t explain it either. According to Wikipedia it comes from Charley Patton’s 1929 song “The Stone Pony Blues,” the suggestive opening lyrics of which are “Baby saddle my pony, saddle up my black mare.” The misspelling seems to be just a mistake.
Epstein and Friedman offer many such anecdotal moments but, like their diffidence regarding the origins of the band’s name, shy away from pursuing them in depth. The breakup of the Poneys is elided, as is her bout with “diet pills” during her touring days, her relationship with Jerry Brown, then governor of California and an aspiring 1980 presidential candidate, and her controversial decision to perform in apartheid-era South Africa. This evasiveness, and the effusive testimonials of collaborators and friends such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and David Geffen do the subject no service.
On the other hand, the film pays deserved tribute to Ronstadt’s remarkable talent, her huge success, her impact on pop music and on the status of women in the industry, and her drive to reinvent herself. An unavoidable pop music presence in the 1970s, she churned out platinum records, piled up Grammys, and appeared on magazine covers and talk shows. She was one of the first female performers to sell out stadiums, where she boomed out definitive covers of songs like “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” and “Blue Bayou”. Former rock critic and filmmaker Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous,” 2000) reverently describes how “her voice filled the arena.”
But the arena did not fulfill her. To the distress of her record company she sought new challenges: an album of classic songs from the Great American Songbook, an LP with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, a stage production and movie of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and a Broadway show of the Mexican songs that first inspired her to sing.
That’s what she comes back to at the end of the film. Now 73, lovely and elegant, her hands trembling from her malady, she joins her cousin and nephew in a rendition of “A la Orilla de un Palmar.” She looks terrified.
“They said you couldn’t sing anymore,” one of her accompanists says. With resignation she replies, “That wasn’t singing.”
LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 95 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language and drug material)Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.