When someone says they like Linda Ronstadt, the first question could be: Which one?
The folk singer? The country crooner? The rocker chick? The soprano performing Gilbert & Sullivan? The chanteuse backed by Nelson Riddle arrangements? The artist doing traditional Mexican songs?
All those facets of Ronstadt’s prolific career are explored in “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” an exhaustive and exuberant telling of the singer’s tumultuous and pioneering career.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) start chronologically, with Ronstadt’s parents, an engineering student at the University of Arizona who fell for a Mexican baritone who serenaded his way into her heart. Ronstadt started a band with two guy friends in high school, and as The Stone Ponies moved to Los Angeles — right at the heart of the folk movement begun by The Byrds and similar bands. The Stone Ponies made one album, had a hit with “Different Drum,” and when they returned from touring, the label wanted to dump the band and promote Ronstadt as a solo artist.
The early days were heady ones, and talent was everywhere, says Ronstadt, who serves as the mostly off-screen narrator. (She has largely retired from the spotlight, last performing live in 2009, because Parkinson’s disease has dimmed that once-magnificent voice.)
On her first tour, she hired as her drummer Don Henley. Her then-boyfriend, the musician J.D. Souther (one of many people interviewed on camera) suggested she get his writing partner as a guitarist. The guitarist, Glenn Frey, roomed with Henley, and they wrote songs during the down time — which is how The Eagles was born. Ronstadt gave that band a boost by recording Henley and Frey’s then-unknown song, “Desperado.”
Most everyone interviewed talks about Ronstadt’s kindness, and her ability to stay relatively grounded even as the whirlwind of fame rose up around her. One of the most touching stories comes from Emmylou Harris, who befriended Ronstadt early — and, when Harris’s mentor and duet partner Gram Parsons died of a heroin overdose while on tour, Ronstadt put Harris up in her house while she grieved.
Ronstadt didn’t write her own songs, and most of her hits were covers of other artists’ songs. Her first No. 1 album, “Heart Like a Wheel” (1974), charted three singles: “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” (a Hank Williams song), “You’re No Good” (first sung by Betty Everett), and the Everly Brothers’ classic “When Will I Be Loved?” The Williams tune put her on the country charts, while “You’re No Good” topped both the pop and R&B charts.
After becoming the highest-paid woman in rock in the ‘70s, Ronstadt experimented with genres in the ‘80s. She went on Broadway in “The Pirates of Penzance,” tackling Gilbert & Sullivan (her mother’s favorite), silencing the naysayers and scoring a Tony nomination. (Her co-star on Broadway and the 1983 movie, Kevin Kline, tells the filmmakers he was skeptical, but blown away by her voice and her determination.) She hired Nelson Riddle to arrange tunes from the Great American Songbook for three albums. She partnered with Harris and their mutual hero, Dolly Parton, for the “Trio” albums. And she collected the Mexican folk songs her father love, and tackled some difficult traditional arrangements, for “Canciónes de Mi Padre” (1987).
Epstein and Friedman touch lightly on Ronstadt’s personal life, such as her short romance with then-Gov. Jerry Brown, and the fact that she never married. But the focus is on her music, her versatility, and her devotion both to her two families — her biological one, and the musicians who she knew, performed with and influenced. (The movie ends with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, with Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow and Harris performing “When Will I Be Loved?” Ronstadt did not attend, because of her Parkinson’s.)
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is a happy reminder, to those of us who were there, of Ronstadt’s way with a song — and a lesson in musical endurance for those just learning about this amazing talent.
‘Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice’
Opened September 6 in select markets; opens Friday, September 13, at Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and other theaters. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and drug material. Running time: 95 minutes.