There’s a lot of talk these days about empowerment in the music industry. “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”), is a no-frills documentary that tells the enthralling story of one of the most powerful women in the history of pop music, and the movie is a testament to how different empowerment once looked, yet how potent it still was. When you watch Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” there’s hardly an atomic particle onscreen that doesn’t vibrate with power. Every costume stitch, every twist and strut of the marching-band members, every triumphant booty shake, every now-hear-this lyric — it’s all about an exultant freedom that’s not being asked for, or even demanded. It has been achieved.
Contrast that with the song that put the 21-year-old Linda Ronstadt on the map. The year was 1967, she was a member of the L.A. folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys, and the song was “Different Drum,” which didn’t sound, on paper, like a recipe for empowerment. It was written by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, and it had already been recorded the year before, in a bluegrass version. The Monkees’ TV producers turned it down, and when the executives at Capitol Records heard the Stone Poneys’ version, they turned it down too — with good reason. It was jauntier than the version we now know, and it didn’t work at all.
Ronstadt was invited back into the recording studio to do a softer, sweeter version, complete with orchestra. The result? One of the most incandescent pieces of pop music ever recorded. And if you want to talk power — emotional power, vocal power, woman power — it’s there in every plaintively surging note of Ronstadt’s performance. Nesmith originally wrote the lyrics from a man’s of point of view; the song was a guy justifying his desire to stray (“I’m not in the market for a girl who wants to love…only me”). But Ronstadt’s version flipped the genders, and she performed it in a voice at once imploring and defiant, wistful and liberated. When she sang, “All I’m saying is I’m not ready,/For any person, place, or thing to try and pull the reins in on me-e-e-e-e,” it was the announcement of a new way of seeing. Ronstadt’s voice yearns and crests with a freedom that never forgets its pain. She breaks your heart and heals it at the same time.
From that moment, the record company saw that she was born to be a solo artist. The astonishing thing about “The Sound of My Voice” is that it captures the life and career of a rock ‘n’ roll star who never looked back, never apologized, never compromised, virtually never made a wrong move, and made it all seem effortless. Linda Ronstadt strode across the stage of the 1970s, a rock world still so dominated by men that despite the trails blazed by such artists as Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, when Ronstadt made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time (in 1975), in a silk-dress-falling-off-the-shoulder shot by Annie Leibovitz, it was considered a revolutionary change of pace.
In the ’70s, Ronstadt had a girl-next-door-in-cutoffs earthy sexy country winsomeness that had the benefit of projecting, more or less, who she was. She was a bit like a movie star, with a pout that came naturally, and she never fussed much over her image (bangs, hoop earrings), because what she was selling was the full-throttle expressiveness of her singing.
A lot of the songs she did were covers, but even when you knew the originals, Ronstadt had an uncanny way of making them her own, whether she was reconfiguring the hard-charging bravura of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved,” the lady-killer melancholy of the Eagles’ “Desperado,” or the teenage erotic-romantic bliss of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” (which for some reason — music rights? — isn’t in the documentary). Cameron Crowe, interviewed in the movie, says, “When you become that sharp of a song stylist, you get authorship, in a way.” And that’s exactly right. Who cares who wrote and originally recorded “Blue Bayou,” even if it was Roy Orbison? When you hear Ronstadt’s version, it’s as if you’re hearing the only version.
“The Sound of My Voice” is laced with colorful stories. We meet the Linda who grew up on a ranch in Tucson 40 miles from the Mexican border, and carried a ripe sense of her Hispanic heritage, even though a lot of her fans had no idea of it — maybe because, as Jackson Browne points out, her last name sounded Germanic. In Los Angeles, she hung out at the Troubadour, where she thought the Doors were a great band who should ditch their atrocious lead singer, and at every point she carved out her destiny, approaching the record producer John Boylan on a whim and going out on the road with a rough-and-tumble assemblage of macho rockers, like Glenn Frey and Don Henley, who roomed together on tour with her and discovered that they chimed as songwriters.
Ronstadt moved into a beach house with J.D. Souther, shot off her mouth about politics with enlightened ferocity even when she was warned not to, and committed the ultimate act of anti-cliché pop-star behavior by refusing to be a diva. She simply asked for what she wanted, and generally got it. Peter Asher, the former Beatles associate who became her producer, talks about how he orchestrated “You’re No Good” to sound like the Beatles (the layered churn of the guitars), and it remains one of her defining tracks — a rejection of victimhood steeped in ominous experience.
Epstein and Friedman, making a return to documentary features after their adventurous docudramas, “Howl” and the criminally underrated “Lovelace,” steer “The Sound of My Voice” away from prickly personal byways, though they do drop in on Ronstadt’s made-for-media-gossip relationship with California governor Jerry Brown. The movie is mostly content to be a portrait of Ronstadt the artist, and it’s more than satisfying on that front. Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Karla Bonoff, and Bonnie Raitt provide testimonials to Ronstadt’s independence and her extraordinary chops, and the movie finds a special value in the bold turns she made beginning at the end of the ’70s, when her star was dimming — I don’t mean to be cruel about it, but it was.
She starred in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” just because she wanted to. She did an album of standards, seeking out Frank Sinatra’s legendary velvet-strings arranger Nelson Riddle, as well as an album of Spanish songs that became the top-selling Spanish-language album ever recorded. And while I confess that at the time I didn’t know what to make of Ronstadt’s creative left turns, and more or less ignored them, I saw only later on that they were inspired. Ronstadt was following her bliss, making music of rare delicacy, putting her days as a pop star behind her because only a fool would try to stretch that out forever.
The one downbeat note the movie sounds is that due to her struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Ronstadt can’t fully sing anymore. At least, not in the way she once did. There’s a scene at the end in which she appears, still beautiful, with her hand trembling, and sings in her living room with a mariachi trio, and it will bring tears to your eyes, because the gift is still there — in her phrasing, in the crystal purity of her tone. Linda Ronstadt had a voice so majestic that, amid the hurly-burly of the 1970s, it soared above everything around it. It was a voice as clear as a bell, as charged as an engine, and one that expressed so much, a voice that could love, fight, caress, declare, cajole, wound, and heal. A voice that turned power into splendor.