Joni, Aretha, Janis, Etta, Barbra Stevie, Mavis, Bonnie, Dolly, Amy, Sade: Special voices all, supremely talented and unforgettable. Who’s the Queen? The incisive and thoroughly entertaining documentary Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice, in my mind, begs the question: Is it this down-to-earth, focused Euro-Mexican from a small Arizona border town who wears the crown?
If you consider the dizzying, diverse path of her six-decade singing career and the unimpeachable successes she scored, then Yes. A resounding Yes. Barely 20, she charted with The Stone Poneys, her first band, with the song Different Drum. Future Eagles Don Henley, Glen Frey, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon comprised her next touring band before she blessed them farewell and good fortune, not to mention having a big hit with their future touching ballad Desperado.
In the ensuing years she achieved the unprecedented (for a female vocalist) with four consecutive platinum-selling records and sold-out stadium world tours. Wedded to her personal vision, she hatched eclectic projects which her cash-conscious record label boss warned might derail her career. However, her hunch, her passion, her vision proved her right every time.
Whether it was portraying Mabel in "Pirates of Penzance" on Broadway, recording lush albums of "The Great American Songbook" with legendary conductor Nelson Riddle (who she had to confirm was alive), Trio, her celebrated collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and the circle-completing Canciones De Mi Padre, a collection of the songs she grew up hearing her dad sing in her home - a stunning quartet of achievements - she shone. And, for the company, brought home the big dollars.
The documentary, more importantly, paints Ronstadt to be kind and generous, thoughtful and intelligent, humble and honest. Her comments and opinions on being a woman in rock ‘n roll, being uncompromising with career choices, being a partner with an equally famous personality, defying the South Africa performing embargo and the importance of family are revealing and refreshing.
Her response to questions about her relationship with California governor Jerry Brown, once a source of never-ending appeal to the media, reveal a strong, centered and confident woman, hardly the pushover or snowflake the interviewer seemed to be expecting.
The concert footage in the film - from her first bar dates in L.A. to concert halls, arenas and stadiums around the world, to recording studios and the Broadway stage - are often thrilling. There are so many moments in this film you tap your feet and want to get up and dance.
How in demand was Miss Ronstadt? Carson and Cavett hosted her, as did Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell on their shows. She was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine six times and Newsweek and Time once each, sometimes clashing with photographers over the image of how they wanted to portray her.
When you listen to the glowing accolades from her family, friends and contemporaries - some of them teary-eyed because she has had Parkinson’s for a decade - you feel their heartfelt awe for, not only her talent, but also her character. Don Henley, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, David Geffen, Joe Smith, Peter Asher and others deliver warm vignettes about their lives and times with her.
It’s not a controversial tell-all film with backbiting and regrets, but more a love-fest.
For half a century or more, Linda Ronstadt had a sterling, diverse career unlike any other. In a scene late in the film at her induction to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Emilylou Harris and Glenn Frey constitute a stellar vocal line-up to honor her in song. It is a serious goose bump moment.
Yet, who did she, with her powerful multi-octave voice, admire? Opera singer Maria Callas, of whom she said: “She’s the greatest chick singer ever.”
In the closing moments of the film, seated on her sofa in Arizona, she sings, however limited, with her nephew and another relative, one of those seminal Mexican songs from her youth. At its conclusion, she sighs: “I’m hungry.”
It was that hunger with her God-given vocal pipes that motivated her to flight, to exploration, to stratospheric success in every venture she invested her inimitable voice in.