Now Playing: 'Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice' on Singer with 'Perfect Pitch, Perfect Rhythm, Perfect Passion'
Film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman charts rise of Ronstadt, who found success across incredible range of musical genres
Ask a dozen people to name their favorite Linda Ronstadt song and you may get a dozen different answers. She's recorded so many hits over the course of her career that it's difficult to put a single 'single' at the top of the list. Even the makers of the new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, find it a challenge settling on a favorite.
"It's hard to just isolate one. They're just so many," confesses Rob Epstein, who directed Linda Ronstadt with filmmaking partner Jeffrey Friedman. "But I guess, for me [it's] 'Different Drum.' That was my first Linda Ronstadt record that I bought."
"'Still Within the Sound of My Voice'," Friedman chimes in.
"I like 'Desperado,'" declares producer James Keach. "'Cause I'm a cowboy, I guess."
"I love 'Willin','" Epstein continues. Keach agrees: "I love 'Willin'.'"
[For me it's "Long, Long Time." Or "Blue Bayou," or maybe "It's So Easy," or...]
Ronstadt's beloved recordings and performances are woven through the documentary, which opens with Ronstadt, in her early 20s, performing on The Johnny Cash Show. By then her talent was already recognized, but she began honing it as a kid in Tucson, Arizona, performing folk music with her brother and sister.
Her first hit, the aforementioned "Different Drum," came with the Stone Poneys, but the film shows that early on executives at Capitol Records saw her as a solo artist. And it's almost exclusively as a solo act that she made her mark across decades, earning a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With so many hit songs to choose from, it would have been easy for the directors to fashion a 'jukebox documentary' out of Ronstadt's greatest hits. But Epstein and Friedman went after something deeper - situating Ronstadt's career in the time period she achieved immense popularity, the 1970s.
"Ultimately, thematically, it's about a woman's empowerment - a woman who is finding her power in a world dominated by men, in an industry dominated by men," Epstein told me when I sat down with the film's creative team in Santa Monica, California. "These were certainly themes that interested us."
Janis Joplin achieved solo success before her untimely death in 1970 at age 27, but Ronstadt really was the first woman to pack arenas over a period of years. She chose her own band members (giving a lift to a young drummer named Don Henley, later of The Eagles) and kept her head while many (male) rock stars fell apart.
"What happens is they lose the ability to focus on themselves as a person, rather than as an image," Ronstadt observes in the film.
She was "never interested in creating any kind of persona... The brand 'Linda Ronstadt' is the music," Epstein insists. "It was always about the music and that's what drove her and she made all her choices based on what she was being inspired by, compelled to do."
Producer James Keach talks Linda Ronstadt at the Tribeca Film Festival
Ronstadt crossed musical genres with remarkable ease, from country to country-rock, to rock, R&B, pop and later the American songbook. Working in a business that, especially in that era, valued the tried and true, it wasn't easy to forge her own musical destiny.
An early attempt to record a song in Spanish met with stiff resistance from her label, Keach notes. "She just couldn't get the record companies to go for it. They said, 'It's not going to sell.'"
Much later in her career she would record Canciones de Mi Padre, celebrating music she had learned from her Mexican-American father, a fine baritone singer in his own right. The album became a major hit.
"She was just determined she was going to do it," Friedman comments. "It was what she needed to do artistically."
Perhaps her greatest leap musically came in the 1980s when she appeared on Broadway in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Pirates of Penzance.
"I think the perception first was, 'It's a gimmick,'" Epstein says. "Exactly," Keach adds, "'Let's get her for the box office and get people into the theater.'" But she dazzled on stage and she and co-star Kevin Kline both earned Tony nominations (they appeared in the film version too).
"Kevin [Kline] I've known forever - we carried spears together in the New York Shakespeare Festival," Keach relates, "He was very much like, 'Wow, she's an unbelievable singer.' Not a lot of people realized that she could do all that."
I asked the team behind The Sound of My Voice how they define the sound of Ronstadt's instrument.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice finished number one among documentary films at the box office in its opening weekend. This weekend it has expanded to theaters across the country [click for ticket information]. CNN Films produced the documentary and it will air on CNN, with the broadcast debut tentatively set for January 1, 2020.
Ronstadt can be heard in the film reflecting on her life, her loves (including California Governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s) and her career. And she appears on camera at one point, a sequence filmed when she headed to Mexico to send a message of pride in Mexican culture and opposition to the current administration's disparagement of Mexican people.
Parkinson's has mostly silenced Ronstadt's extraordinary singing voice. She gave her last concert in November 2009. Ronstadt, now 73, hasn't hidden her illness.
"It's remarkable but it's also completely in character, the grace and graciousness - that's how she conducted herself throughout her entire career," Epstein states. "She's just very matter of fact about it. No self-pity. She just accepts it as the circumstance and has adjusted accordingly."
Epstein and Friedman were nominated for an Oscar in February for their short documentary End Game; Epstein has won two Oscars previously, for 1989's Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt and 1984's The Times of Harvey Milk. The duo directed the 1995 Emmy-winning documentary The Celluloid Closet. Over their careers they have covered a lot of thematic ground, but The Sound of My Voice marks their first music documentary.
"That was just a pure pleasure," Friedman reveals, "to be able to listen to that music and to build the narrative around such great performances and to have a film that people really want to experience just because they know that that music is going to carry it."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.