When I sat down with filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to talk about their new documentary, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” they asked me how familiar I had been with the famed singer’s career. Given how expansive and multi-faceted the legendary singer’s career was during her 40-plus years in the spotlight, I felt sad to say that I had been unfamiliar with many of the risks she had been able to take as an artist. Of course, I knew the hits, as many of us do. But, what this new documentary is able to accomplish is a revelatory and well-rounded portrait of one of music’s great trailblazers for those who, like me, may have not been aware.
During her astounding run — which was sadly sidelined in 2011 due to her struggle with Parkinson’s disease — Tuscon, Arizona native Ronstadt spanned several genres, including pop with her first hit “Different Drum,” country, rock, Mexican romantic balladry, starring roles on Broadway, and even opera. There were no barriers that could contain Ronstadt’s powerhouse of a voice.
“When her book came out — she wrote an autobiography called ‘Simple Dreams’ [in 2013] — she was on ‘Fresh Air’ with Terry Gross and it was one of those interviews where I was in a car and I had to pull over and listen to the whole thing,” remembers Epstein. “ I was so captivated by her telling her own musical journey story. I read the book and was taken by her literary voice and her own telling of her own experience. I thought it would be great to do this as a film and to do it with her really telling the story in the way she did in the book.”
Epstein had been completely blown away by Ronstadt’s life in entertainment and her willingness to lay it out bare in her book. He spoke with his filmmaking partner, Friedman, and after reading the book, he agreed that her story was a fascinating one that needed to be told through film.
“I had always been aware of her music and never really paid that much attention to it,” says Friedman. “It was a part of the soundtrack of my formative years. I started to get interested in her when she started branching out into other styles. When she started singing opera and operetta, that blew my mind and captured my attention. There is something interesting going on there with a successful pop recording artist who take those kinds of risks, who also had that kind of range, with the pipes and the craft to sing this other kind of music. That fascinated me.”
One overarching trait of Ronstadt that permeates through the film is how unbelievably humble she is and was even throughout her time as one of the darlings of the music business. You get the sense that she was never comfortable in the spotlight and always preferred to collaborate, referring to herself as a “harmony singer.” For someone with so much talent as a vocalist and a willingness to be veer into uncertain territory with hugely successful results, Ronstadt has a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. Even to this day, she is unsure that her story is worth telling and had feared it would all go away while she was in the prime of her career.
This is something that completely took Epstein and Friedman while they were working with the music legend. “She has so much confidence in her performing,” says Friedman, “You would never guess that she was insecure just listening to her sing. She has such control and strength and conviction in everything she sings.”
Given Ronstadt’s aversion in her career to be seen as a celebrity or the legend she is, at the age of 73, she has been recognized by the community in a profound way, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 and named as a Kennedy Center honoree earlier this year.
“I think the world is catching up to recognizing what her contributions really have been to this musical legacy of decades,” Epstein posits. It’s safe to say her influence is being felt in a big way, and Epstein and Friedman are seeing that in the reception the film is getting after early screenings.
“We spoke with her two weeks ago,” recalls Epstein. “We did a joint interview conversation which was very fun. It’s bittersweet that we’re out there with this film and get to experience the audiences’ pleasure in seeing her performances. She’s not having that experience. Any opportunity we have to share the love and convey that to her is welcome. This was one of those opportunities where we could have a loose conversation. We remarked how people, in seeing the film, are commenting on her great style and saying she’s a fashion icon. She thought that was hilarious! She arrived from Tucson knowing nothing, and now it’s ‘hippie couture.’”