The pop-rock legend is given long overdue recognition in an uneven but fascinating documentary.
There’s a constant misconception that one isn’t what they truly are but what they put out into the world. They’re not themselves. They’re what others know, what others see, what others gather from their work. Seemingly at the drop of a hat, a person is what they display and how they differ from their surroundings.
It’s a scary thought. It’s also quite the through line for Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film that, despite its myriad of shortcomings, has a bittersweet undercurrent that most music documentaries wouldn’t brush up against. It isn’t really about her music. In a lot of ways, it isn’t just about her. It’s about identity: being the eye of the storm that blessed not just with sight but also with sound, sound of mind.
Ronstadt, currently 73, came into her own at the tail end of the 1960s. She took her southern heritage with her to Los Angeles. Her Mexican roots grew from her heart and eventually from her mouth in 1987’s Canciones de Mi Padre, but up until then, others didn’t really see beneath the surface.
This narrative core may sound trite on paper, and first it can play as such. It’s a bit rushed, with Epstein & Friedman too eager to get to the music. The directors, as well as editors Jake Pushinsky and Heidi Scharfe, give a crash course of Ronstadt’s early childhood before plopping the audience into her career. The voiceovers, flatly lit talking heads, and treasure trove of archive photos never quite synthesize. It plays like sound over sight instead of a medley of the two, and some later moments can recontextualize its pacing as uneven.
In a lot of ways, it isn’t just about her. It’s about identity: being the eye of the storm that blessed not just with sight but also with sound, sound of mind.
This is another movie that doesn’t seamlessly span over a decade in its first hour, and at its worst, its transitional gimmicks play as clichéd or uneven. Luckily, The Sound of My Voice doesn’t verbalize its most intriguing themes, nor does it restrict them to Ronstadt herself. And how could it? It may have always been her voice, but unfortunately, others’ misinterpretations got as much attention. To the public, she wasn’t Mexican. To the producers that took to her at the dawn of her career, she wasn’t known for her own lyrics. She just was.
She was a collection of harmonies that said the most in how she twisted the air instead of the words she sang, and it’s no mistake that the film hammers down her identity. It’s can be repetitive and uneven from a filmmaking standpoint. That said, the picture also takes a different approach to the ‘60s and ‘70s by portraying them as somewhat empty. There’s a distance in how Epstein and Friedman treat the time, puzzling its edges together like a plane of negative space. Other stars come and go, and the loneliness bleeds in through the center.
There are times where art and identity shift between being complementary and downright opposite. There are sequences that, as they chug along, emulate how world both lauded Ronstadt and positioned her as the Other, not just in her gender but also in her ethnicity. When the talking heads work, it’s because they highlight the hypocrisy of a world that can love someone’s art so much until they dehumanize the artist. The interviews would have played smoother if they were reduced to simple voiceover, but they help give the film something to say.
And while that something may veer towards unbridled love for its subject (and it’s easy to see why), it isn’t just that. It’s a funny thing audiences and collaborators sing Ronstadt’s praises as she grows lonelier only to become a purer version of herself.
Having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, the singer’s last performance was November 7, 2009. Since then, she’s said, “I can still sing in my head. I just can’t do it physically.” The movie shows her crooning away with family, but, in her words, it’s not singing. It’s just stitching together notes, being with others. It’s tragic not necessarily because there’s a crushing sense of loss but because there’s not more catharsis through self-expression. What is beautiful is that her self-expressions are unstuck in time.