Linda Ronstadt: The sound of my voice
Three and a half out of four stars
At the time Linda Ronstadt burst on to the music scene in the late ‘60s, there had only been one major solo female rock singer — Janis Joplin — a de facto blues belter who made four studio albums then died of a heroin overdose in October of 1970.
The “anti-Joplin” in every possible way, Ronstadt started in folk which led to country rock and before her career ended in the 2000s she had recorded more albums in more diverse genres than anyone else in music history (with the possible exception of Elvis Costello).
From 1974 to 1978 Ronstadt released five multi-platinum albums in a row, the most ever for a female singer. By any measure she was on a path to reach more milestones but, as a result of road and rock star burnout, she chose to toss it all to the wayside. Instead of another rock/pop record, she decided – much against the advice of Asylum label president David Geffen – she would give classical opera a try.
From a technical perspective, Geffen had little room to argue as Ronstadt more than possessed the range and pipes to pull it off. With Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” that’s exactly what she did. The result was a best-selling soundtrack album and a critically acclaimed feature film.
Invigorated, Ronstadt chose to make not one, but three, albums of classic jazz standards with legendary arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle, who came out of retirement for the gig. The man responsible for many of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol-era hits, Riddle was the perfect collaborative conduit for Ronstadt’s torchy vision. The result was another trio of iconic standouts – not nearly on the level of sales of her back rock/pop catalogue, but at that point Ronstadt didn’t care. She was having fun and it showed.
In the following decade, Ronstadt made six more albums with low to modest sales — and it was at this point she decided to pull the plug. This wasn’t because of a lack of drive, but rather because her voice was faltering. Ronstadt wouldn’t find out for sure the reason until after finishing her autobiography (“Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir”) but she was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
If you’ve ever known someone sentenced with this most punishing of life’s cruelties, it is the breakdown of the nervous system and strikes its victims with a slow burn type of restrictive torture. Very few people actually die of the disease, but rather from other issues related to it (Muhammad Ali and Janet Reno among them). it turns a person into a prisoner trapped inside the former shell of their own body.
With a long resume containing titles mostly associated with LBGTQ subject matter, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet,” “The Times of Harvey Milk,” “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt”) are no strangers to framing human frailty and illness with thoughtful delicacy. They handle this final segment of the film with the utmost of care and (likely at Ronstadt’s request) refuse to turn her into a Parkinson’s poster child.
Ever the master of self-deprecating humor, Ronstadt handles it all as a matter of course and gracefully sidesteps victimhood — determined to exit on her own terms in the same manner she has lived her life thus far. Based on the earnest and emotional testimonials contained here she will be sorely missed by more than her record-buying fans.
Among the many of those interviewed in the movie, all were there with Ronstadt at some point her career including Jackson Browne, Geffen, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt and songwriter J.D. Souther (also a former lover). The only one not over the age of 70 is former music critic-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe who began writing for “Rolling Stone” while still in his teens.
Noticeably absent and never mentioned once is “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, who dated Ronstadt during the ‘80s after she broke off another long-term relationship with politician Jerry Brown. Brown isn’t interviewed here, but is frequently featured in archival stills and stock footage.
Ronstadt, now 73, never married nor had any children.
The further time marches on, the more frequent filmmakers will be making documentaries such as this (and another profiling David Crosby from last month) chronicling the careers of rock singers and musicians who provided the lifetime soundtracks for Baby Boomers. From a pure business perspective this is a smart move as many of those same Boomers have the most free time and (generally) the most disposable income.
As crass and opportunistic as that might sound, it will almost certainly lead to a spike in documentary film production (and resulting higher box office returns). Nothing succeeds in the movie or music businesses like the peddling of nostalgia.