Even at the height of her career, Linda Ronstadt never felt good enough. Despite all the evidence to the contrary — the sales, the awards, the national attention — she doubted that she deserved her success. No words of affirmation could soothe her, even as producers, critics, and fans alike all fell over in awe of her talent.
“I knew when I saw Linda…that she was gonna be a big star,” remarks Asylum Records founder David Geffen early in the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. “She didn’t think so.” Geffen pauses a moment, evoking memories of bygone days then adds, “She had very little confidence in those days.”
Peter Asher, who managed Rodstadt and produced 13 of her albums, corroborates Geffen’s account. He says in the film, “Linda never thought that she was as good as she was,” remarking that, privately, she was something of a paradox. “She’s confident about her ideas, but not about herself, not about her singing.”
Ronstadt admits in a rare personal revelation that she was often displeased with herself and her abilities, even as her career ascended. “I’m never really satisfied with what I do,” she shares in an old interview featured in the doc. Plagued by self-doubt and perfectionist tendencies, her cool and confident onstage persona concealed her true inner self. In reality, her self-image was warped and unstable, her self-esteem fragile.
While only a minor part of the film, this paradox is the strongest thread of The Sound of My Voice, which mostly chronicles Ronstadt’s upbringing and career. When directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) actually venture into Ronstadt’s personal life, the results are profound.
Ronstadt seldom spoke publicly about her struggles with insecurity, so her songs told her innermost truths for her. Luckily, The Sound of My Voice is anchored by her filmed performances, which more often than not are pure magic. For her longtime followers, the extensive archival footage is a nostalgic treat, while those unfamiliar with Ronstadt’s work will surely walk away from the film as new fans.
Though Ronstadt was not a songwriter, we learn from the doc that she carefully selected the songs she performed and made them her own. She only sang what moved her, what felt authentic, so even in her most popular songs, she is often lonely, anxious, and wounded over lost love. Epstein and Friedman curate a remarkable collection of performances to demonstrate Ronstadt’s musical and emotional range.
“I feel so bad I got a worried mind / I’m so lonesome all the time,” Ronstadt croons in her iconic rendition of the bluesy “Blue Bayou.” In her smash hit Everly Brothers cover, she asks with the titular lyrics, “When will I be loved?” And in the ranchera standard “Por Un Amor,” she sings, “Me has dejado con el alma herida” (“You’ve left me with a wounded soul”).
Looking at this selection of songs, one is struck not only by their common themes but also by their musical variety; as The Sound of My Voice establishes early on, Ronstadt has proven to be one of the most eclectic and multi-faceted singers in recent history.
Much of the documentary focuses on the singer’s unprecedented career and radical musical decisions. As we learn, Ronstadt’s music spans countless, diverse genres, from country to stadium rock, operetta to Mexican ranchera. Instead of trapping her within a single mold, Ronstadt’s immense fame empowered her to cross genre lines, experiment with new styles, and follow her musical instincts.
Epstein and Friedman deploy impressive archival footage, famous talking heads including Dolly Parton and Bonnie Raitt, and Ronstadt’s own narration to recognize the singer’s immense talents. The filmmakers’ admiration for their subject shines throughout the doc.
Interviewees also make their case for Ronstadt’s grandeur; colleagues and collaborators exalt Ronstadt’s musical acumen, old lovers recall falling for her, and fans — such as movie director Cameron Crowe — gush over her stage presence. By pulling from so many sources, The Sound of My Voice makes for an excellent retrospective and celebration of Ronstadt’s trailblazing career as one of pop music’s first solo female stars.
The documentary also excels when it highlights Ronstadt’s radical womanhood, which was essential to her identity as a musician — how she led a movement of women in music and created space to uplift other women musicians.
While The Sound of My Voice does an exceptional job chronicling Ronstadt’s artistry and professional achievements, it often neglects her interior life, glossing over her inner complexity. Epstein and Friedman make a convincing argument for Ronstadt’s unmatched talent and skill, but I still found myself desperate to know more about the woman behind the voice. This is where The Sound of My Voice falters, painting a rich professional portrait but a shallow personal one.
I certainly came away from The Sound of My Voice with a clear sense (and intense admiration for) Linda Ronstadt, the performer. By the film’s end, I could praise her endlessly, could vividly recount her meteoric rise, could name a dozen or so of her songs, and could tell you that, yes, she felt insecure sometimes. But I’m not sure that I got to know Linda Ronstadt, the person. The nitty-gritty details of her inner life — her dreams, fears, secrets — are all lost in Epstein and Friedman’s sweeping gaze and truncated runtime.
That dreamer from Tucson, who despite her undeniable talent was sad and lost and unsure and frequently heartbroken, and who once called herself “an unhappy person forever” (in a highly recommended 1975 Rolling Stone magazine profile, in which she talks drugs, “fat farms,” and heartache) — I’d have liked to learn more about that woman, in addition to the public-facing powerhouse performer.