celebrating the sound of linda’s voice

Linda Ronstadt.

There is a moment near the end of the fine new documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” that triggers an unexpected rush of poignancy. It comes as a sobering tribute from Emmylou Harris pans to an outdoor image of the present-day Ronstadt, her singing voice silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, glancing calmly with an obvious radiance still in her eyes.

After that is a performance of such subtle, heartwarming grace that it is best to omit the details for those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a fitting epilogue to a chronicle of an artistic career largely uncompromised by commercial intrusion and undeterred by the usual rock star tailspins. It is a musical life honorably celebrated.

Directed by the Academy Award-winning duo of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “The Sound of My Voice” serves as a scrapbook of the Ronstadt saga, from her days singing with her siblings as a teenager in Arizona to a California move that eventually made her one the most popular female pop artists of her generation. Of course, she was also restless enough with her sense of celebrity to forsake rock ‘n’ roll to sing opera, songbook-era standards, country music, pop duets with Aaron Neville and, most unexpectedly, traditional Mexican folk songs (mining a tradition inherited from her father).

Ronstadt’s career had no great scandals, no crippling addictions to battle and, generally, none of the self-inflicted excesses that stars of her level contend with. Even a suggested skirmish with drugs was halted before her career suffered. Her obstacles instead came from holding fast to a hearty level of genre-hopping she was continually warned would torpedo her career and being in the novel position of a female rock star in a ‘70s music industry run by men.

A generous and well-placed lineup of friends, family and accomplices offer commentary as the story unfolds with Ronstadt herself serving as occasional narrator. Especially insightful are comments from John David Souther, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton and Don Henley. There is also a wealth of vintage clips, only a portion of which are devoted to performances. A highlight includes Ronstadt nudging a tongue-tied Neville during a Grammy acceptance speech to thank his wife.

One of the more moving remembrances comes from Kevin Kline, who confesses to having had only a cursory knowledge of Ronstadt’s music prior to working with her on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” He recalls being stunned by what he heard in early rehearsals. “When I heard her voice, it was just … gorgeous, musical, celestial yet earthy. Something so pure, it just made me cry.”

We don’t learn anything alarmingly new about Ronstadt in “The Sound of My Voice,” especially since she views her life and career, right up through her current existence with Parkinson’s, in remarkably unsentimental terms. But having all the elements of her career reassembled cleanly in one program with a cast of famous friends serving as tour guides makes the film immensely watchable. It is the story of a voice that, despite all of the commercial zeniths and its current state of Parkinson’s-induced silence, lived to sing. Ronstadt explains the sense of purpose and passion for why all singing voices feel that need at the film’s onset, before the party at hand even begins.

“They sing so that coming generations won’t forget what the current generation endured or dreamed or delighted in.”

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is currently playing at the Kentucky Theatre.


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