Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s biodoc Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is essentially audiovisual liner notes to a hypothetical greatest-hits package of one of the forgotten pop-rock idols – at least as this documentary supposes – of the 20th century. Ronstadt, the diminutive powder keg whose blues-rooted ballads and bangers became radio staples during her imperial phase of the mid- to late ’70s, hasn’t remained in the cultural consciousness the way that contemporaries as disparate as Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, or Dolly Parton have. However, her genre-melding brand of soft rock, spawning hits such as torch song “Blue Bayou” and country-infused “When Will I Be Loved,” laid the groundwork for modern crossover chanteuses like Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, not to mention the multitude of popular female vocalists working in similar veins since Ronstadt’s last major chart impact in the late ’80s, right up to the present moment.
At least in the completely watchable yet immediately forgettable finished product of The Sound of My Voice, there’s lack of drama and conflict in Ronstadt’s career and personal life which makes her a curious subject for veteran documentarians Epstein and Friedman, who between them are responsible for two queer-doc canon entries, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and The Celluloid Closet (1995). Blame the omnipresent wave of nostalgia for baby-boomer-era music (and seemingly everything else) for this Wikipedia article writ large on the big screen: The past 12 months have seen the repugnant Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and the Elton John musical Rocketman, as well as docs like Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool and Laurel Canyon rumination Echo in the Canyon.
Milking that generation (and everyone else with their respective former cultural flames, to be fair) for every last possible nostalgia cash-in aside, there are plenty of reasons to prop Ronstadt and her music up as a documentary subject. She’s had a mini-resurgence in some music-critic corners – not to mention the one-off article from Stereogum exploring her chart-topper “You’re No Good” and Pitchfork’s recent revisit of that single’s album, Heart Like a Wheel, which contain much more historical and critical analysis of Ronstadt and her ethos than this feature-length film. Epstein and Friedman have instead stitched together a passionless tapestry of archival performances and contemporary talking-head interviews that simply navigates from one life event to another sans any truly interesting context or thesis.
What is mostly on display is a lot of ego, for better and worse, with Ronstadt – who is present in sparse narration and in the film’s manipulative prologue and epilogue – possibly controlling the narrative or the various other participants’ hyperbolic and empty musings about the subject or their generation’s greatness. Friedman and Epstein round up the usual ’70s rock suspects: Jackson Browne, Cameron Crowe, David Geffen, and Bonnie Raitt are present and their subsequent victory-lapping becomes a part of the text. On one hand, the humility of someone like Emmylou Harris provides one of the most genuine displays of affection for her friend and colleague here. On the other, there’s Don Henley, who awkwardly appears digitally de-aged like a dry run for this year’s forthcoming The Irishman or Gemini Man and only seems present here to recount Ronstadt’s uniting him with Glenn Frey before the two men formed the Eagles.
This sort of digging to find any substantive material isn’t wholly necessary; it’s just that the cultural and personal analysis that is present exists only in the margins, largely passed over for behind-the-scenes outlining of the past. Ronstadt’s status as a major female star among a sea of male rock-and-rollers nearly always lies just on the surface, but how her gender intersected with (or even dictated) her gung-ho work ethic is left on the table. An opportunity even presents itself to possibly elucidate some of these connections or deep character sketching when Ronstadt recounts how she immediately ditched the Stone Poneys, the band she and her brothers started in the mid-’60s, after her cavernous vocals helped shoot their single “Different Drum” to the top of the charts. That potentially uneasy dynamic is unexplored, and the incident becomes just another dot on the timeline of her career. Much later, a television interview goes awry when Ronstadt first states that she is apolitical, only to go on a liberal diatribe against United States policy after she’s questioned about performing in apartheid-era South Africa. It’s one of the film’s sole glimpses of Ronstadt the person negotiating with Ronstadt the public figure.
The Sound of My Voice is framed by present-day footage of the septuagenarian Ronstadt struggling with Parkinson’s disease, an affliction that inches her toward being unable to perform daily tasks, let alone sing with the verve she once had. Not turning their feature into a portraiture of a bodily vessel disallowing one to fulfill their passions is understandable – that’s an entirely different work than the celebratory hagiography here – but by centering the film’s epilogue around that as Ronstadt struggles to perform a Mexican traditional in her living room with family feels manipulative rather than exploratory. With The Sound of My Voice, Epstein and Freidman have at the very least succeeded in compiling a surface-level Linda Ronstadt playlist, but it’s one missing some necessary deep cuts.