At her concerts, Linda Ronstadt used to imagine that audience members were whispering to one another about what a terrible singer she was. She was an unusual rock star in several ways. Few others were as careful about keeping their distance from the insanity, and fewer turned away from arena adulation and the pop charts to do standards, operetta, and Mexican folk songs.
Ronstadt was the most spectacular female singer of the rock era, her voice a thing of astonishing clarity and power and color. Due respect is here, in the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. What she did with a song like “Hurt So Bad” or “How Do I Make You” could blast you backwards into a reverse somersault, like a Peanuts character. Yet she was near her peak when she walked away from rock. Today she’s 73 and can’t sing, at least not in public: Parkinson’s.
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, this restrained and respectful film tells the story the way Ronstadt evidently wants it told (no mention of famous boyfriends Jim Carrey or George Lucas, to whom she was engaged, and no mention that she never married). Ronstadt looks back on her upbringing just north of the border in Tucson, where her German-Mexican dad sang Spanish songs to her in a lovely baritone. As a kid, she thought Spanish was for singing and English was for speaking; at the time, Mexican-American kids were often discouraged from speaking Spanish. When a Tucson friend moved to L.A. when she was a teen, she joined up with him and another musician to form the Stone Poneys. A folky song they did in clubs, “Different Drum,” was reworked and heavily produced in the studios of Capitol Records to showcase her voice, and the single launched her career in 1967, when she was 21.
As she racked up platinum albums, Ronstadt never fully bought into the rock ethos. She hated the heels she was told to sing in, and kicked them off onstage. She couldn’t figure out what to wear, and settled on a Cub Scout outfit. Since she wasn’t a songwriter, some of the pressure was off her, but because she didn’t write the anthems of her generation, she never confused herself with a deity. All around her were people convinced that they were specially chosen, and they were all men. (Two of her backup musicians, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, got to like each other in the $12 motel rooms they stayed in while touring with her, and decided to form their own band.)
Seen in a 1977 interview in Malibu, Ronstadt offers an insightful tour d’horizon of the rock scene from a quizzical distance: “Rock and roll stars tend to end up isolating themselves more and more and more, thereby increasing their own feelings of alienation and anxiety,” she says. So they turn to drugs “and destroy themselves. It’s just very silly . . . they lose the ability to focus on themselves as a person, rather than as an image, and that’s very dangerous.” Yet everyone around them considers it their job to indulge every whim, which “weakens them as people and eventually it weakens them as musicians.” Five years after sharing these thoughts, she released her last rock album, Get Closer. “The nature of being a pop star,” she said, “is that you get these things that are successful and you have to sing them over and over and over again until they start sounding like your washing machine.”
By hiring Nelson Riddle to do lush orchestrations for What’s New (1983), her album of standards associated with the generation of Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, Ronstadt would blaze a trail for other artists who ditched commercial formats to venture into different genres: The following year Robert Plant and Jimmy Page released the orchestral ballad “Sea of Love” under the name the Honeydrippers, and the year after that Sting turned from Police-work to jazz fusion. Ronstadt also starred on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, then recorded the best-selling non-English-language album in U.S. history, Canciones de Mi Padre. All of this was very much against the advice of her handlers, and it took considerable will to ignore them.
Ronstadt is reticent about her private life, and the film doesn’t pry. She met her longtime boyfriend J. D. Souther when he stopped her at the folk-rock club The Troubadour and told her she should make him dinner. At her house she made him a peanut-butter sandwich, he says, and they moved in together the following day. Later she began dating Jerry Brown, then the governor of California, after being seated next to him at a Mexican restaurant in L.A. She doesn’t have much to say about him or anyone else she had relationships with.
The work is enough to fill a movie, though. Hers was a gutsy, label-defying career defined by a love of all kinds of music. She hasn’t sung publicly since 2009 and today she is disabled, beyond the reach of treatment. She rarely listens to her old records, but we still have them; my favorites are in this Spotify playlist. Her friend Emmylou Harris notes, “There’s just no one on the planet that ever had, or ever will have, a voice like Linda’s.”