Since bursting onto the music scene in 1967, Linda Ronstadt has been an icon for more than half a century. Her extraordinary vocal range created iconic songs across rock, pop, country, folk ballads, American standards, classic Mexican music, and soul. As the most popular female recording artist of the 1970s, Ronstadt filled huge arenas and produced an astounding 11 Platinum albums. Ronstadt was the first artist to top the Pop, Country, and R&B charts at the same time. She won 10 Grammy Awards on 26 nominations and attained a level of stardom the Tucson native never could have imagined.
In Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Ronstadt guides us through her early years of singing Mexican canciones with her family, her folk days with the Stone Poneys, and her reign as the Queen of Rock throughout the 70s and early 80s. She was a pioneer for women in the male-dominated music industry and a passionate advocate for human rights. Even more attention was heaped upon her when she had a long-term and high-profile romance with California Governor Jerry Brown. In recent years, her incredible voice has been lost to Parkinson’s disease, something she accepts with a dignity and grace that is inspiring, but her music and influence remain as timeless as ever. With incredible performance footage and heartwarming appearances by friends and collaborators such as Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice celebrates an artist whose desire to share the music she loved made generations of fans fall in love with her.
It was a thrill for me to sit down with the award-winning directors of this film, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet) and producer James Keach (Walk the Line, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, David Crosby: Remember My Name) to discuss this deeply moving and joyously entertaining film.
Danny Miller: Your previous documentaries are legendary. Did you feel this film was a natural progression from the kinds of things you were doing?
Jeffrey Friedman: I think so. This is ultimately a story about a woman’s empowerment, and that’s thematically not very far from other themes that we’ve taken on.
Did it take a while to earn Linda Ronstadt’s trust before she agreed to do the film?
Oh God, yes. It took about a year to convince her to let us do it!
Yeah, she doesn’t seem like someone who would necessarily be down for a film about herself.
Rob Epstein: Fortunately, she had just seen my film The Times of Harvey Milk and really liked it, so the timing of that was fortuitous. But as Jeffrey said, she was very reluctant and it took a long time to get her to come around. She basically told us that she thought we were deluded and that nobody would want to see the film and if they did, they’d be bored to tears.
Oh, Linda, Linda. That’s totally insane!
Jeffrey Friedman: But after a while, a couple of things conspired to change her mind. The people who were still working with her were rooting for us — her longtime assistant and good friend Janet Stark and her manager John Boylan were encouraging us behind the scenes to keep going. We told Linda that we wanted to use her wonderful book as source material but we wanted to amplify it by having an audience actually experience the music that’s only described in the book. She finally started to allow herself to imagine that.
Did she have any ground rules about what she didn’t want you to put in the film?
Rob Epstein: Linda is a very private person and she didn’t want us to get into her personal relationships which we totally understood.
With the exception of Jerry Brown?
Jeffrey Friedman: Yes, well, that’s in her book and anything she talked about in the book was fair game. Linda and Governor Brown are still friends.
Rob Epstein: We really just wanted to help make her musical journey come alive in the film. But she also said she wouldn’t be interviewed for the film.
Are you saying that all of her voiceovers in the film are taken from other interviews?
We did use dozens of different sources but in the end she finally agreed to sit down for an interview.
Jeffrey Friedman: But that one was only an audio interview, we didn’t film it.
And yet she does appear on camera at the end of the film, and it’s such a beautiful, poignant scene. Was it always the plan that we wouldn’t see her until the end?
Rob Epstein: It was always our intention to somehow bring it to the present tense. We were very frank with her about that, we told her that the audience would want to see her today. We talked about the possibility of having her come into a recording studio and read passages from her book but she thought that was just too artificial. And then all of a sudden, she had this trip planned to Mexico with her family and she invited us. But that happened way at the end.
Jeffrey Friedman: By that time we had interviewed so many people that she was very close to and they were like her spies telling her everything that happened — they all assured her that we were doing a very respectful portrait.
I found the entire film so incredibly moving. I could tell you that I cried at points but it’s more like tears were pouring down my face during every single song. I can’t even fully understand why it affected me so much. Something about the purity of her voice and the purity of her relationship to her music and the way she navigated through her superstardom without ever getting sucked into the negative aspects of that.
Rob Epstein: I think it was surprising to all of us how humble she is and self-deprecating. She never had much interest in being a celebrity and she managed to maintain her authentic personhood throughout all of the different iterations of her fame and career. She certainly never tried to create any persona around “Linda Ronstadt,” she was always just herself, the same person that she is to this day.
Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, she’s very real, no bullshit. I think that’s part of what makes watching her sing so touching, because it’s really just her and the music coming through her. It was never about showmanship or flash and dazzle, just an authentic artistic expression. I think that’s why audiences have responded to her with such enthusiasm and emotion throughout her career.
James Keach: But I’m not sure she was never “sucked into” the fame part, I think she was sucked into it many times. The difference was that she always pushed back. She would get pulled into things like those big arena concerts and then come realize that it wasn’t what she wanted to do. But I would speculate that your emotional reaction to the film might also be because those were better days for a lot of us in many ways. I feel like they were better days in my life, a lot more simple and fun! They were certainly the best days of my life in terms of music. I also tear up now when I hear Linda sing and some of the other performers from back then because it brings back that different part of my life even though so much time has gone by. I find it very touching.
Right. And yet Linda herself was going through a lot of insecurities at the time and trying to figure out what she wanted. I remember going to see her in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway in the 1980s and wondering how they “let” one of the most famous singers in the country do that. I so admired her determination to branch out in areas that were hardly as lucrative as what she could’ve kept doing for the rest of her life.
Rob Epstein: There was an article I read about her from that time where she was speculating on whether she would ever be happy. The truth is she just wanted to sing. For her it wasn’t about being a huge rock star or the girlfriend of George Lucas or Jerry Brown, she just wanted to be in the living room with her friends singing. But she also knew there were dues she had to pay in order to be Linda Ronstadt.
I love all the interviews in the film. Was it challenging to get all of those amazing, busy people to be in the film?
Jeffrey Friedman: Well, Linda is very loved so it wasn’t that hard to get people to say yes. And James was a great producer along with his partner Michele Farinola, and they just never gave up until we got all the people we wanted.
I was especially glad to see Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton in the film, their collaborations with Linda were pure magic.
James Keach: I think he would have done it but Linda resisted, she didn’t want him to be interviewed even though they are very close friends today. She was a little nervous about all of the people we approached, to be honest, because she didn’t want them to feel obligated to do it and say nice things about her. She’s so humble she didn’t think anyone would be interested in a film about her life and career.
Jeffrey Friedman: She knows that there are young people who have never heard of her, which is kind of astonishing. That was one of the reasons we wanted to make the film, to make sure that her legacy wasn’t lost. But she’s not someone who lives in the past and just thinks about her own career. She listens to all types of music.
Rob Epstein: Yeah, she was just telling us the other day about some Korean pop group that she wanted us to check out, that’s what she’s interested in right now.
Was it hard to figure out how to navigate through the topic of her Parkinson’s disease?
Jeffrey Friedman: She definitely didn’t want to be seen only through that lens, but on the other hand, she’s been very upfront and open about her current condition.
I think the loss of her voice is one of the great tragedies of our lifetime. I felt the same way when Julie Andrews lost hers. Do you think it’s painful for Linda to listen to her own old songs from when her voice was so powerful?
Rob Epstein: No, I don’t think so, she does listen to herself when she needs to, certainly in the context of putting this film together. She has always been very careful about making sure that the sound was just right. One of her big concerns with the film was that somehow we might include a bad performance but honestly, we never found one in all of our research!
Getting to hear her sing at the end was so exquisite even though she says that wasn’t really singing. How did that come about?
James Keach: That was when we went with her to Mexico. We wanted to go to her grandfather’s hometown and at one point we were having lunch at this little mom and pop place on the way down there. Some of her family members started playing music for everybody. Jackson Browne was there and he started singing and then I could hear Linda humming and she started singing along with the rest of them. I was sitting next to her and I thought, wow, that’s really good and I said, “Linda, I thought you said you couldn’t sing, I think it sounds great!” The next day at lunch she said that when we interviewed her that night she would try it again but nobody else could be in the room in case she screwed up. So she did it, and talk about tears! Everyone was crying and we couldn’t believe she was doing it because she had stopped singing years ago. We all just choked up.
It is so inspiring to see how she is dealing with the challenges of her disease without a shred of self-pity. It’s really made me look at certain things in my own life in new ways.
Rob Epstein: She sees it as just a circumstance of her life and she’s adjusted accordingly. She’s still completely engaged with the world.