|"Different Drum"-era Linda / CNN Films|
(Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2019, USA, 95 minutes)
In a surprisingly youthful-sounding voice, Linda Ronstadt, 73, narrates this look back at her life. She speaks so quickly that the words seem to tumble out of her, as if she's been waiting for years to let them out. And that's as it should be. The device lets us know that she's going to be shaping her story rather than simply contributing sound bites to an outsider's take on it.
European-American on one side of her family, and Mexican-American (and European) on the other, Ronstadt took after her father, Gilbert, and her grandfather, Federico, who played traditional Mexican music. She grew up in Tucson, steeped in country, classical, and mariachi. In her home, English was for conversing and Spanish was for singing.
After singing with a few local groups, a former band mate, Bobby Kimmel, encouraged her to move to Los Angeles. She was 18 years old. They formed a folk trio called The Stone Poneys. Through their performances at the Troubadour, where aspiring artists went to make their mark, they landed a deal with Capitol, which led to a recording of the Mike Nesmith-penned "Different Drum." Though Ronstadt wasn't thrilled about the strings her producer added to the song, it was, she acknowledges, "a huge hit."
Capitol soon made it clear that Ronstadt was the one they really wanted, so her band mates went their separate ways. She invited Don Henley and Glenn Frey to back her up. They would go on to form the Eagles. J.D. Souther also made her his girlfriend, and I use that phrase, because his opening gambit was, "I think you should cook me dinner." I can't imagine that that line was any more enticing in 1971 than it is now. She made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…and they moved in together.
|Just a few steps away from super-stardom / CNN Films|
Other women, like Dolly Parton, emphasize Ronstadt's ability to "inhabit a song." She wasn't a songwriter, and yet songs that weren't unknown when she got to them have come to be more closely associated with her than their original performers, from the McGarrigle Sisters ("Heart Like a Wheel") to the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved"). I'm quite certain I heard her version of Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (if I'm Still in Love With You)" before I heard his. As music journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe notes, "When you become that sharp of a song stylist, you get authorship."
Ronstadt's success on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts--the first woman with five platinum albums in a row--saw her headlining the very stadiums she played on tour with Young. Long nights on the road with hard-partying men led to her to copy their worst behaviors, something she now regrets, though it's certainly understandable. Her drug of choice: diet pills. Fortunately, they don't seem to have wreaked the same kind of havoc on her that they did on Judy Garland, another petite brunette with a big voice.
The directors proceed to her relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown, which brought attention she didn't necessarily welcome, though she handled it as well as anyone could. When she grew tired of stadium life, she looked for other ways to use her voice, which led to a role in the Broadway production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Her voice was "so pure," co-star Kevin Kline remembers, that it made him cry. She moved on to albums of standards, a trio with Emmylou and Dolly, a duo with Aaron Neville, and two traditional Mexican albums, including Canciones de Mi Padre, the best-selling Spanish-language album in US history.
If she shape-shifted with ease, Ronstadt eventually reached a point where singing was no longer an option due to a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, and yet she sings, quietly and gently, in the film. If she can no longer sing professionally, because most of "the colors aren't there anymore," she can still harmonize with family members, just as she did in her youth.
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk), are best known for their non-fiction and fact-based films about civil rights and free-speech issues, so a documentary about a musician may seem uncharacteristic except that it was produced by James Keach (Walk the Line, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me). If Epstein and Friedman lack any significant music credentials, Keach, who considered Johnny Cash a friend, doesn't (Keach met Cash when the musician guest starred on his wife's Jane Seymour's Western series, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman).
|Giving Bobbie Gentry a run for the money / CNN Films|
As a portrait of a voice, their documentary does exactly what it set out to do, but as a documentary about a person, it falls short. We find out how Ronstadt met Souther and Brown, for instance, but we don't find out why they broke up. They ask Souther, but he says he doesn't remember, which seems disingenuous. How do you forget something like that? Bonnie Raitt defends a woman's right not to marry, and I fully support that, but it would've been better to hear from Ronstadt (the filmmakers also neglect to mention her relationships with Jim Carrey and former fiancé George Lucas). Though she never had kids of her own, she became a mother when she adopted a girl, followed later by a boy. This isn't mentioned even once.
Sometimes, when filmmakers work closely with subjects they revere, they tread too lightly, and audience members lose out on the chance to get to know them as well as we could have. We don't need to know everything,
but if a filmmaker is going to bring up a subject, like a relationship or a substance abuse problem, they should give it the attention it deserves.
So, I left feeling frustrated with the filmmaking, but not with the subject. Unlike Keach's Glen Campbell documentary, which focuses extensively on the late musician's experience with Alzheimer's disease, we learn almost nothing about Ronstadt's experience with Parkinson's, and that's okay. She's acknowledged it, and she's enjoying life as best she can, and that's enough. She's spoken about it in interviews; she doesn’t need to go into detail here. Mostly, the documentary makes you want to take a deep dive into her discography, especially that amazing run of albums from the 1970s, and that's one of the best things you can ask from any music documentary.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice plays Regal Meridian 16 and AMC Dine-In Seattle 10 through Oct 2. Update: the film returns to Seattle at Northwest Film Forum on Nov 24 and 27. Click here for more information.