Greetings again from the darkness. This may be a conventionally-structured documentary profiling a well-known person, but that person possessed extraordinary talent, and her story deserves to be told … or better yet, heard. Parkinson ’s disease has robbed Linda Ronstadt of her celestial vocal gift, but co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman succeed in proving how dynamic she was as a singer, and also how she influenced so many others.
The film opens with the audio of Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett introducing her on their respective TV programs, while a montage of magazine covers and album covers remind of us of her once immense and widespread popularity. We then take a journey through Ronstadt’s childhood. Her grandfather invented the electric stove and electric toaster, and music played a significant role in all family gatherings. She describes how, as a young girl in Tucson, the radio was her “best friend in the world” as she listened to music from both sides of the border.
In 1964, at the age of 18 and the urging of her musician friend Bobby Kimmel, Ronstadt moved from Tucson to southern California to join a community of musicians. She rented a flat in Santa Monica for $80 per month – a price point that barely secures a meal at a decent restaurant in the area these days. Thanks to The Byrds, folk rock was exploding on the scene. Ronstadt sang back up on Neil Young’s huge hit “Heart of Gold”, and she, along with many others, performed regularly at The Troubadour. It’s here where she crossed paths with Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and JD Souther, the latter of which became her boyfriend, songwriter, and producer.
The steady stream of interviews includes Henley, Browne, and Souther, as well as LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn, Asylum Records founder David Geffen, Bonnie Raitt, producer John Boylon, the legendary Ry Cooder, Cameron Crowe, Karla Bonoff, and (former Beatles) agent and producer Peter Asher. Most memorable are the recollections of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, who collaborated with Ronstadt on the 1987 Grammy winning album “Trio”. Ms. Parton’s segment is especially insightful as she contrasts her own instinctive singing style with that of Ronstadt’s analytic and perfectionist approach. Ms. Harris is featured in a clip of herself performing at a very young age, and she’s quite emotional when discussing Ronstadt’s gift.
It’s quite fascinating to follow the number of shifts in her career and musical style. After achieving so much as a folk and pop singer, she was incredibly successful in country music, and as a tribute to her mother’s favorites with American Standards arranged by Nelson Riddle. She also mesmerized with the operatic songs in “Pirates of Penzance” and stunned the music industry with her best-selling album of Mexican standards. Although she labels herself a balladeer and harmonizer, those descriptions are far too humble, and underscore the opinionated talent she was. The clips of her performing onstage are breath-taking. Her voice combining power, texture and nuance.
Linda Ronstadt was never a songwriter. She was an expert song interpreter like Elvis and Sinatra. She claims “every song has a face”, and the numerous clips of her singing provide visual proof of what she means. The film touches on her early addiction to diet pills/speed, as well as her relationship with Jerry Browne, the duets with Aaron Neville and Ruben Blades, and for bonus points mentions the influence of the late great Harry Dean Stanton. We see her 2013 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame tribute performed by five fabulous female singers … and it’s their performance that really drives home just what a pure and unique voice Ronstadt possessed. While the trip through the many genres is interesting, what really stands out are the clips of her on stage … making yet another song all hers. Linda Ronstadt certainly sang to the beat of a different drum, and we were fortunate to hear her.