Not even pop music is safe from the political machinations of leftist filmmakers — including documentarians such as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the duo that distorted cultural history in The Celluloid Closet, Lovelace, and other social-justice vehicles. In the new Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, they continue that special brand of cultural engineering through a seemingly innocuous subject.
Here’s how Epstein and Friedman’s cultural rhetoric works: They offer a view of the past (of Ronstadt’s career, in this case) that reconstructs it along political lines. Ronstadt’s reputation as a successful, award-winning pop singer backs up ideas about sexual equality and unseen racial identity, tendered as more important than the songs and music that made her famous.
This biased approach to biographical documentary keeps naïve viewers in thrall to liberal ideology. It neglects the performer’s artistic endeavor, which is especially problematic in Ronstadt’s case since her career, as it developed through the social upheaval of the Sixties and Seventies, set off contradictions of gender and status even as she defined them for herself and her listeners. The 1967 recording of “Different Drum,” credited to “The Stone Poneys (with Linda Ronstadt),” asserted female sexual independence within the cocoon of a seemingly protective rock band.
Following that success, as Ronstadt’s solo career rose, she established the idea of a freewheeling white woman enjoying the privilege of autonomy — of self-choice and self-reliance. She enacted the sovereignty of making her own music choices (an irritating preference to redo other artist’s signature songs) and sustaining a career of creative expression in the wild-west competition of libidinous California soft rock. She enjoyed Rolling Stone magazine’s peak years as a cover girl who simultaneously fronted mainstream media’s celebration of itself.
It helped that Ronstadt was physically attractive: wide-eyed, toothsome, and short-skirted. Her cuteness acted as a seductive lever against the male insecurities of both the music industry and journalism. Ironically, Ronstadt became a symbol of what were essentially patriarchal institutions.
But E&F ignore that complexity in order to commemorate Ronstadt as a fearless, uncompromising standard-bearer — a banality. Ronstadt speaks of herself honestly and modestly (respecting her recent illness), but the talking-heads tributes in this doc are trite. Her colleague Bonnie Raitt extols: “Linda was the queen. She was like what Beyoncé is right now!” Eternal Rolling Stone sycophant Cameron Crowe crows: “But people didn’t notice the difficulty of being a woman, trailblazing and having the success of a Mick Jagger!”
This sets up E&F’s patronizing, politically correct identity politics. A vintage Seventies TV interview features Ronstadt testifying, “Rock-and-roll culture seems to be dominated by hostility against women. What happens is they lose the ability to focus on themselves as a person rather than an image, you know?” Even more timely, E&F reduce Canciones de Mi Padre, Ronstadt’s 1987 foray into ethnic music, with their eyes on immigration platitudes: “My family are Mexicans, and that is my roots” is her late-career declaration.
In contrast to the TV series Unsung, which discovers the little-known backstories of black pop musicians, E&F take an obsequious approach to established fame; their doc is Oversung. Allowing politics to overinflate their star celebration, E&F seem strident yet feeble after this year’s previous pop-music bio-docs. The Sound of My Voice isn’t as passionate or innovative as Jakob Dylan’s Echo in the Canyon, and E&F’s specious contrast of Ronstadt’s recordings and ladylike personal discretion is less revelatory than David Crosby’s reckless confessions in Remember My Name.
Epstein and Friedman seem unable to handle the irony that Ronstadt’s popular Everly Brothers cover “When Will I Be Loved” (No. 2 on the charts in 1975) would later influence one of James Toback’s best films, the 2004 When Will I Be Loved starring Neve Campbell as an uncompromising female sexual explorer, using Ronstadt’s cry to test the limits of libertinism, social progress, and personal fulfillment.
E&F leave us less able to think clearly about how these issues — and the cultural past — affect the political present. Instead, they merely use Ronstadt for a #MeToo icon as if the sound of her voice spoke for everyone.