At the height of her fame in the 1970s and ’80s, Linda Ronstadt was known—and celebrated—for her almost freakish vocal range. Her adaptability allowed her to effortlessly hopscotch across disparate genres, from English operetta to Mexican mariachi, without losing any of her enormous popularity. The unorthodox nature of Ronstadt’s career, throughout which she dipped into various musical cultures, provides directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman an opportunity to present a prismatic portrait of the musician and her stark eclecticism. But it isn’t long into Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice when the hagiographic soundbites from famous interviewees become the dominant mode. The film ultimately transforms into at least one thing that Ronstadt certainly isn’t: conventional.
The Sound of My Voice’s cursory coverage of the major moments of Ronstadt’s life and career suggests that Epstein and Friedman are marking off a checklist. Which isn’t to say that the documentary doesn’t show flashes of a distinct cinematic personality. The greatest passages come early as the filmmakers detail Ronstadt’s move to Los Angeles in the late ’60s, with the singer herself elegantly narrating her experiences in trying to kickstart her career. Epstein and Friedman stitch together atmospheric montages and sound collages of contemporaneous archival footage and music that effectively capture the electricity of L.A. at the time. For a spell, The Sound of My Voice plays less like a straightforward biographical profile and more like a whirlwind visual essay about Ronstadt’s nostalgia for a specific time and place.
This stretch of the film is notable not only for its technical sophistication, but also for being one of the few times Epstein and Friedman expand upon Ronstadt’s life in a manner that moves beyond mere anecdote. After this point, though, the filmmakers only touch on the difficulties that she overcame while navigating a successful musical career as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. This is both surprising and disappointing considering that the film is from the makers of The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet, two historical documentaries that sensitively and compellingly framed their narratives in a broader social context. Even Ronstadt’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, which, in a cruel twist of fate, has robbed her of her ability to sing, is a sort of afterthought.