The first half of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is a maddening, frustrating sit, portraying Ronstadt—the woman who would go multiplatinum several times, win ten Grammy Awards, and master numerous genres as wide-ranging as rock, country, operetta, and mariachi—as a woman crippled with indecisiveness; her youth and early success as a singer seems a succession of shepherdings and surrenders against her better judgement. At first she didn’t want to move from her family’s ranch outside Tucson to Los Angeles, but she did. She didn’t want to go solo and break up the Stone Poneys, the band she’d formed with Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards, but she did. She didn’t want strings on her ballads, electric guitars on her hit You’re No Good, or to open for Neil Young on tour. But again and again other people convinced or cajoled Ronstadt, elevating her higher and higher into the pop mainstream almost against her will. She once confessed in an interview that she hated getting in front of crowds to sing, especially in big arenas where her voice would get drowned out by the electric guitars. “But if I can’t sing these songs,” she continued, “I’m going to die.”
But a strange thing happens about halfway through her career—and about halfway through the documentary: she suddenly seizes control of her life’s narrative, careening herself towards a series of bizarre, baffling creative decisions that inexplicably kept succeeding. She’d conquered rock, folk, and country, but what compelled her towards a Broadway production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (alongside Kevin Kline!) that nabbed her a Tony Award nomination? What drove her then to record a number of crooning ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle, the bandleader and orchestrator for none other than Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole? What made her—in the face of every industry professional’s advice—then abandon all of that to record mariachi? And not just succeed at it, but to have her album Canciones De Mi Padre become one of the highest selling Spanish-language albums in American history!
This is the duality of Ronstadt in the film: a woman at once fiercely driven yet self-conscious. It’s a dynamic that in a better documentary could make for a fascinating examination of a creative at war with themselves, but The Sound of My Voice has little interest in being anything other than a glorified wikipedia page, sprawling enough to cover every bit of her career but stretched too thin to do any of it any justice. Not all this is Epstein and Friedman’s fault—Ronstadt herself was adamant in not appearing in person with the exception of a brief scene at the very end demonstrating the extent of her Parkinson’s disease. The result is an incredibly dry talking heads piece intended to shore up her considerable legacy without challenging or exploring it. It would’ve been wonderful if they could’ve dived deeper into some of the more troubling or controversial parts of her life and career, particularly her oddly apolitical romance with California governor Jerry Brown despite her outspoken leftist politics or being a performer of Mexican descent thriving in traditionally white genres like country and rock before transitioning back to mariachi. But there’s simply no room for the film to do so.