Michele Farinola is no stranger to producing music documentaries: Her credits include “Foo Fighters: Back And Forth,” “George Harrison: Living In The Material World,” and most recently, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice,” which is up for best music film at the Grammy Awards Sunday night.
Farinola says she’s drawn to telling stories of legendary performers whose stories connect to today and to the audience’s own experiences. With Ronstadt, she felt this story of a woman who stayed true to herself as she made a name for herself in the ’60s was a story that could resonate with audiences. Together with producing partner James Keach, and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Farinola made the documentary in conjunction with CNN Films.
Beyond its Grammy nomination, the film was nominated for three Critics Choice awards in 2019, and ultimately picked up two wins there, for Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary and Best Music Documentary.
Farinola talks about how the film came together, how Keach managed to get Ronstadt on camera, and whether there’s a chance Ronstadt would make an appearance at the Grammys this weekend.
Last year, the documentary won two Critics Choice awards, and this year, it’s nominated for a Grammy. How does that feel?
I’m happy the documentary has done so well. I’m sad we can’t celebrate properly. When we started on this, a lot of the younger members of the team didn’t know who she was, and that’s the beauty of doing these films — trying to reintroduce younger generations to these artists because there’s so much there to explore. And she is our history.
You mention wanting to introduce Linda to younger generations, and you’ve worked on documentaries about David Crosby and George Harrison. What draws you to projects?
With Linda, it was one of those things where CNN was our co-producer. James Keach, the other producer, and I were looking at artists from that era, and they wanted to do a Linda Ronstadt documentary. A lot of what CNN likes and what I like is [telling a story that is] tying it to today. What is it about this artist and their story? What links it to today?
With Linda being female in this male-dominated industry and finding a way to stay true to herself, her passion and love for singing and music were all that drove her. We felt it was time. We started working on it and we heard she was in talks with (other) directors and we had to step away because someone beat us to it. But the directors were missing the link of financing, which is always, for me, the toughest part of getting these films made. Linda’s lawyer told them to speak to us and so we partnered with them. The first thing we did was go out to dinner and talk about Linda all night. We were able to get moving on it right away.
What intrigues you about telling these stories?
A lot of times you want to do artists who are legendary artists who need that definitive documentary on their careers or their lives. It’s not just about putting them on this pedestal; you want to highlight what parts of their life we can connect with. We all connect through our stories. When you hear someone expressing what they’re going through in their life, their music, and their art, it’s healing for that person. It’s healing for the viewer. That’s what connects you most to them; their stories and their struggles.
The opening with Johnny Cash is perfect. It’s 1975 and he introduces Linda who sings “You’re No Good” [her first No. 1 hit], which, when you’re talking about connecting to audiences, everyone has heard that song, but they don’t know the voice. How did you land on that idea?
We have a brilliant editing team, Jake Pushinsky and Heidi Scharfe. I’m not sure which one started that opening. But it’s this reintroduction of who she is. And I never knew the Johnny Cash piece. We had a great archival researcher who finds all these pieces. Right off the bat, if you don’t know who she is, you hear the song and you see that she was on all these TV shows. All of a sudden you get that this was a big deal and she was a big deal.
We were blessed to have Dolly Parton in that opening to kind of give those few pieces of dialogue that helped push that forward into the opening of the film.
The beauty of the documentary is Linda is her own narrator and when we see her, she’s in Mexico surrounded by family, but it’s not a tragic story that’s being told.
She is all about family and she gets joy from that. She didn’t want to be interviewed for our film. So we used a lot of archival interviews. For the bookends, an organization called Los Cenzontles is close to her heart. They help Mexican American children get immersed into their culture, and it helps take away the shame of being Mexican American. She goes every year. And so she told James that if he wanted to come, he could and he could film there. It was an organic thing and we just happened to tag along because we wanted her on camera.
We ended up filming her singing and talking, and it ended with her in the living room with her family. James was able to jump in and as a few questions. That, to me, made the film.
Do you keep in touch with Linda?
I’m in touch with her manager, and James has been in touch with her. We wanted to see if she could help accept the award, but with her health, she can’t commit to a lot. But she is a special person.