Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

I went to try and get an interview with Linda Ronstadt once before her show at Humphrey’s by the Bay. She was walking by the bus, with messy hair, and seemed a bit out of it. The interview ended up not happening. It was just two days after she had been booed at a concert (I believe in Las Vegas), where she started getting political onstage and a fourth of the crowd walked out on her. I think she also dedicated a song to “documentary” filmmaker Michael Moore.

Surely this documentary would bring up some of the controversy and politics that got her into trouble with fans.

Nope. They just wanted a bunch of dry talking heads, to make this piece come off like a fawning Wikipedia page. 

It was interesting to find out about Ronstadt’s early life living on the family farm in Tucson, listening to her dad singing songs and realizing what a love of music they all had (it also makes for a very powerful ending scene in which she sings with her family). You smile as she says, “I thought growing up, people talked in English and sang in Spanish.”

It was a treat to hear the recordings of her father singing, too.

She was still a teenager when she joined her friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. to start the Stone Poneys, with guitarist Kenny Edwards.

We hear her narrate, as she watches all the bands playing on the Sunset Strip (she thought The Doors would make it big, if they’d only drop their lead singer). Of course, a lot of the musicians playing in L.A. were also digging her. How could you not? She’s beautiful and has a great set of pipes. 

The Stone Poneys had a few hits (a version they play live here of “Different Drum” was dreadful), and soon they broke up and Ronstadt bought herself a brand new pair of roller skates (Melanie reference not intended) for her new album cover, and was on her way to even bigger success.

Future Eagles songwriter J.D. Souther (he gave us the hits “Heartache Tonight” “Best of My Love” “Victim of Love” “New Kid in Town”) approached her and said, “Why don’t you make me dinner?” 

She responded, “Okay” and when he came over, she made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Well, he ended up dating her, producing a few of her albums, and writing her a few tunes (“Heart Like a Wheel” and “Living in the USA”). On a side note, I highly recommend you find his  Souther — Hillman — Furay Band records.

They ended up breaking up, and her backing band ended up becoming The Eagles. You don’t have to feel bad for her after the band split. As everyone knows, she became a huge success. And what’s even more baffling is that it wasn’t just rock and pop songs. When she decided, against everyone’s opinion, to do a mariachi album — that became huge, too. It is the best-selling non-English-language album in American music history. 

Opera — yep. Oh, and since she always dug Gilbert & Sullivan, she decided to do The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway (opposite Kevin Kline), and…that wins her a Tony award.

It was a thrill to see Kline adding his two cents to everything, as well as legendary musicians, including Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Jackson Browne (who I’ve now seen in the documentary on Henry Diltz, and last month in the documentary on David Crosby and Jakob Dylan’s Echo in the Canyon).

It was great to hear from the always beautiful and talented Emmylou Harris, as well as Ry Cooder, Cameron Crowe, Peter Asher, and Waddy Watchel. Even though Watchell was her long-time guitarist and is a studio whiz, they probably should have left him out of this. He was once arrested for having lots of child pornography at his home. But I digress.  

Aaron Neville tells a sweet story about asking her for an autograph when they worked together, and what she wrote to him.

It did get a little dry listening to the talking heads (not David Byrne) go on and on.

It’s a shame that the film just glosses over the controversial moments of her life, or any of the real dirt. There’s only a brief segment about her relationship with Governor Jerry Brown. They met when he walked into a Mexican restaurant and she was standing on a table putting something on the wall. I don’t remember if he also asked her for a PB&J sandwich. 

There’s brief talk about drug use (just speed/pills are mentioned), and you get the impression she battled some kind of eating disorder. But none of that is really delved into. 

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting. Some of the concert footage is great. And, hearing how she supported rising talents like Emmylou Harris, instead of resenting her, was wonderful. She even did an album with Emmylou and Dolly Parton.

Ronstadt has accomplished so many things in the music business. She had five platinum records in a row. She was the first artist to have a hit on the country (a Hank Williams cover), R&B, and rock charts — all at the same time.

She had a cover of an Eagles song that’s better than the original (Desperado).

I’m also guessing, from the segment they showed here, it was the worst interview Dick Cavett ever did. He was awful trying to talk to her.

The production was uninspired storytelling from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk). In fact, it’s surprising how in a male-dominated industry, the struggles Rondstadt probably had to deal with…were mostly glossed over. So is the Parkinson’s disease, which has robbed her of that singing ability. It was almost like that was an afterthought.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

 

 

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