Like many hopeful young singers, Linda Ronstadt arrived in Los Angeles in the early ’60s with big dreams of making it in the city’s burgeoning folk rock scene. The Arizona native was just 18 years old when she made the jump, leaving behind her beloved family in Tucson to join up with her old friend Bobby Kimmel and form the Stone Poneys alongside guitarist Kenny Edwards. Ronstadt would go on to have a massive career, becoming one of America’s first female solo pop stars, while also churning out folk and country hits, crafting the best-selling non-English-language album in American music history, and taking up opera in her late thirties. She is, in short, the kind of multi-talented star that is impossible to pigeonhole or slow down.
All of this information is delivered during the opening moments of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” which serves as both a preview of what’s to come and an introductory session to some of the film’s many talking heads. And Ronstadt herself is there too, now in her seventies and long retired from singing, because her own body stopped her when the industry couldn’t. To say there’s plenty of material to mine here — from Ronstadt’s wide-ranging career and prodigious talent to her current life with Parkinson’s — suggests that Ronstadt’s life doesn’t easily boil down to feature length.
From its own opening moments, “The Sound of My Voice” is intent on telling its audience just how much there is still left to cover, but even with that vague disclaimer, the movie is a maddeningly shallow look at Ronstadt’s remarkable life. While Epstein and Friedman have assembled an enviable assortment of talking heads to chat about Ronstadt — from Ry Cooder to Don Henley, Emmylou Harris to Dolly Parton — and enjoyed rare access to the singer herself, the result is still a truncated and glossed-over documentary that fails when it comes to issues large and small.
The film doesn’t build out a cohesive timeline — intertitles announce the time period just twice, so good luck figuring out even the year of events that fall in between — and it also doesn’t contextualize her impact on the industry at large. Instead, it leans on emotional interviews and a wealth of footage, which still can’t save the film from its shallow design and uninspired storytelling technique.
“The Sound of My Voice” does offer a handful of deeper explorations of Ronstadt’s life beyond zipping through the basics and setting them to her own songs (and it really is difficult to quantify her sheer talent as a singer). This includes an extended segment about Ronstadt’s family and their love of music, which ties back to itself during the film’s emotional final scenes. Exploring the early influences of an artist is an obvious enough ask for a film like “The Sound of My Voice” — and one that other recent and popular films about singers, including smash hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” have failed to do. Epstein and Friedman hit early high marks by getting deep with Ronstadt’s family.
Later in the film, the filmmaking duo approach another important element of Ronstadt’s legacy that isn’t typically explored, moving into the film’s most illuminating section. Even during the height of her fame, Ronstadt was someone who tussled with her own self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy. As a woman starting out her career in a predominantly male-dominated industry, she had grown used to being the only woman around, and when other big time talents, including Harris, Parton, and Bonnie Raitt arrived, Ronstadt had to make a choice. In one of the film’s most lucid moments, the singer recalls seeing a young Harris performing and knowing she could either resent her skill or make it her business to help support the rising star. She opted for the latter, and the choice changed both singers’ lives for the better.
Epstein and Friedman — who just this year were nominated for an Oscar for their graceful short doc “End Game” — have an obvious affection for their subject, and the film ends in a stirring sequence that brings the narrative back around to Ronstadt and her journey. If only the notes that got us there were richer.
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. CNN Films will broadcast it later this year.