Opening Friday, Sep. 13
The December 2, 1976 cover of Rolling Stone features a soft, wide-eyed Linda Ronstadt wearing a cross necklace and a red slip; one strap of the slip has jumped ship from her shoulder. The portrait was taken by Annie Leibovitz, and the slip was not Ronstadt’s idea. She hated its sexed-up implications. Perhaps the styling was the magazine’s attempt to reverse course on previous coverage of the singer. A piece the year prior had begun by describing her as someone who “looks, acts, and sounds like a little girl.”
It’s no surprise, then, that a singer whose image was always malleable to the whims of critics—ingénue or sex object, depending on the day—might feel skeptical about a documentary. Over the years, Ronstadt, who lost her voice to Parkinson’s disease and retired in 2011, has been uninterested in the attention. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman won her over, though, and wisely, the result—Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice—focuses mostly on the versatility of her voice. In the film, her vocal range becomes a symbol for everything else she represented during her tenure in the seventies and eighties as the Queen of Rock: adaptability, doggedness, a certain moral clarity.
And her voice is unforgettable, a bel canto vehicle that moves so effortlessly between yearning and assertion that you forget the kind of chops it takes to make those leaps. She was, as Jackson Browne says in the film, a “fully developed vocal stylist” who was as unafraid to try Broadway and Mexican folk music as she was rock and country. Singing, after all, was what interested her; curating a public image or a career path did not.
In her heyday, Ronstadt won ten Grammys and consistently topped the charts. And though she was not the first female rock star, her career was forged during a time when there were particularly few pieces of the pie. Delightfully, The Sound of My Voice features interviews from Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton, who all vouch for Ronstadt’s eagerness to take them under her wing and develop a sisterhood. The film follows the trio she formed with Parton and Harris, a country supergroup whose harmonies are possibly only rivaled by the recent formation of the group The Highwomen.
The documentary can feel a bit impersonal at times, and those hoping for a tell-all about Ronstadt’s personal life may be disappointed. For anyone simply looking to fall back in love with her voice, though, the animated archival footage from concerts will do just that, while converting the uninitiated. Whether you’re hearing powerhouse karaoke ballads “Blue Bayou” or “You’re No Good” for the first or the hundredth time, the resonance is electric. (I’ve had the poster from 1975’s Heart Like a Wheel tour framed in my bedroom for years; YOU’RE NO GOOD is bolded at the top, a message I likely could not handle waking up to every morning from any source save Ronstadt.)
She was a rock star because she had the presence of a rock star, a voice that could hold a room captive with its wide and roving command. On stage, she was shimmering and assured; when she belts out lyrics like “When will you love me?” the script flips and the song is less a question than it is an assertion that she will be just that: loved.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.