Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

Linda onstage singing with her father Gilbert

Left to right, Emmylou Harris, Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton

Ronstadt receiving National Medal of Arts from President Obama

LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE           B+               
USA  (95 mi)  2019 d:  Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman           Official site

I’ve been a singer all my life, so it’s very odd not to be able to do that.  Especially when I go to visit my family, as we always sang together and now we can’t.  But I can play music in my head ― I’ve got a huge jukebox in my brain.
―Linda Ronstadt

Probably most Americans under 40 don’t know her or aren’t familiar with her music, which was all the rage in the 70’s and 80’s, but she’s not an Internet sensation attracting millions of followers  Quoting from Peter Lewry’s 2010 book on Ronstadt, Linda Ronstadt: A Life In Music, written by band musician Andrew Gold in the Foreword, “She was, for a very long time in the seventies, the most famous female rocker in America.  As you may imagine, it was hectic and non-stop, but we were all young and ambitious, with a healthy dose of post 60’s party instinct to boot.  At the center, however, was of course the music.  The music came first always.”  Like Whitney (2018), most books or films doing biographies prefer to reveal something personal that offers deep psychological insight into one’s life, but in Linda Ronstadt’s case, that’s not the highlight, as it really is all about the music, becoming synonymous with family, as it’s what her family did together, where singing and sharing music was an essential act of love, as natural as the sky is blue, each with their own different tastes, all collaborating to form a collective musical consciousness.  So rather than search for deeper insights, this film plays the music that defines who she is, with Ronstadt providing background narration (some of it quite poetic) that literally tells the story of her life, but as it turns out, music is the expression of her heart.  While she doesn’t fit the profile of writing her own songs, making them autobiographical, instead she takes other people’s songs and makes them her own, making her rendition uniquely powerful, yet heartfelt, with Cameron Crowe revealing “When you become that sharp of a song stylist, you get authorship, in a way,” where what mattered to her was whether the songs meant something, revealing “Every song that I sing has a face I sing it to,” finding a core meaning in the message that she so beautifully conveys through radio, records, or live performances.  In the late 60’s, a comparable song stylist to Ronstadt might have been Dusty Springfield, who could get down and dirty with the soulful Dusty Springfield - Son of a preacher man - YouTube (2:26), but mostly she perfected a studio sound that emphasized sophisticated strings.  Ronstadt didn’t dance like Tina Turner or have a background group singing harmony and dancing in unison like The Pips, providing none of the visual imagery of musical stars of today, she simply faced the audience and poured her heart out, with musicians harmonizing, usually dislaying her preferance for performing barefoot, where you quickly realize that despite her small frame (only 5 feet two inches tall) her voice is a powerhouse that fills the entire space of large auditoriums, a force of nature where her command of range is seemingly so effortless, developing a reputation for being capable of singing anything, from country to pop, classic Rock ‘n’ Roll to R & B, light opera to big band standards, even singing classical mariachi music.  Undaunted throughout her career, she continued to defy categorization, often the lone female rock star in a male-dominated industry, she remains one of the most important vocalists on the American music scene, the first artist to top the pop, country, and R & B charts simultaneously, with five straight platinum albums, 11 overall, nominated for 26 Grammy awards, winning ten of them.  Yet despite her acclaim, all the other boy bands received entry into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame before she did belatedly in 2014, which, if anything, means the industry continues to underrate the significance of her career.  Perhaps this film may change a few minds.  When asked why she sings, she says it’s for the same reasons birds sing: “They sing for a mate, to claim their territory, or simply to give voice to the delight of being alive in the midst of a beautiful day, so the subsequent generations won’t forget what the current generation endured or dreamed or delighted in.”  Starting out in the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene of Los Angeles in the late 60’s, she stopped singing publicly in 2009, as the inflection in her voice changed from Parkinson’s disease, the same ailment that afflicted Muhammad Ali late in his career (eventually losing his voice), a progressive nerve disease for which there is no known cure.  So the film is something of a revelation, playing it back, reliving so many of her performances, where she became a musical icon, but remained modest and humble about her own abilities, never full of herself, avoiding the spotlight, always praising others, where the essential beauty of her character is just how unassuming and unpretentious she is, where for her, she lets the music speak for itself.  With that in mind, this is the right kind of film for the occasion, as it is wall-to-wall music, offering joyful praise for her immense musical contributions.    

Ronstadt was born in Tucson, an Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo mix, about an hour’s drive to the border in Nogales, which allowed her to hear the radio airwaves on both sides of the border growing up, from Mexican songs, Country and Western, as it was called then, or the upstart youth music of rock ‘n’ roll.  Her grandfather Fred was a Mexican immigrant who ran a popular hardware store, while a well-traveled Aunt Luisa used to perform around the world in the 20’s and 30’s, bringing back songs from around the globe.  Ronstadt’s maternal grandfather Lloyd was a prolific inventor, holding many patents, creating an early form of a toaster, many refrigerator devices, the grease gun, and one of the first electric stoves, while his design for an ice-cube tray made him millions, much of which he spent tying to find a cure for his wife’s Parkinson’s disease.  Her mother Ruth was from Flint, Michigan, but attended college in Arizona, serenaded by her father Gilbert, a rancher who sang songs beneath her window at night, marrying and eventually settling on a 10-acre farm in Tucson, where the family was actually featured in a magazine spread of Family Circle in 1953, with Linda, the third youngest of four children, owning her own horse in childhood.  Her father ran the family hardware store but was a singer during the Depression of the 30’s, playing in local clubs and social functions, bringing that love of music to the family, with an eclectic record collection that included Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, though Linda’s favorite Mexican singer growing up was Lola Beltran, while her sister loved Hank Williams but performed in a Gilbert & Sullivan musical at school, with Linda learning the lyrics to all the songs.  In the hot summer months, many were inclined to stay indoors, where her favorite activity was listening to the radio, with evening broadcasts of “Race music,” as it was called at the time, often imitating the music she heard.  Convinced she would be a singer, she got her start with her brother and sister, calling themselves The Three Ronstadts, singing at various functions in and around Tucson.  One of their bass players, Bobby Kimmel, headed out to Los Angeles to start a band in 1963 when Linda was enrolled in Arizona State University, urging her to come out West and join him, which she did, leaving after finishing one semester of college.  Much like Elton John in Rocketman (2019), though a decade earlier, they headed to the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where playing on open mike night could gain exposure, as talent agents were always present searching for the next big thing, though most groups at the time were singing Elizabethan Folk Ballads, the kind of thing that might headline coffee shops, but nothing more.  Hanging out at the Troubadour introduced Linda to Jackson Browne, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey, all aspiring musicians at the time searching for their own niche in the music industry, mostly emulating the folk-rock sound of The Byrds, with Linda sharing a cheap Santa Monica beach house at the time.  Linda headed a group called The Stone Poneys, an eclectic folk act that captured the attention of Frank Zappa’s manager Herb Cohen, a notorious bad-ass who liked the girl and ditched the rest of the band, turning the rather amateurish sounding, somewhat psychedelic Stone Poneys - Different Drum (Live) YouTube (2:27) into a hit record with a little kick to it, featuring Linda’s distinctive voice and her gorgeous All-American girl look front and center, Different Drum YouTube, 1967 (2:39), recording a record album, where the song was a hit on the radio, sounding nothing like the rest of the album, mostly getting airplay in the LA area.  Not immediately catching on, she continued to record music, but took a turn away from folk, venturing into country music, but what surprised her most was hearing another Troubadour act play an exact rendition of one of her own signature songs, with Don Henley and his band Shiloh performing her version of Linda Ronstadt - Silver Threads and Golden Needles - YouTube 1969 (2:26), eventually inviting Henley and Glenn Frey to go on the road with her, where the two guys eventually got the bright idea to form their own band called The Eagles.  While there was plenty of drugs and alcohol to go around on the bus, what was clear is the superb craftsmanship of the musicians, a prerequisite throughout Ronstadt’s career, brilliantly concise, emphasizing but never overpowering the message of the song.   

Ronstadt’s next big hit is kind of a throwback to an earlier era, a heartrendering ballad that retains roots to the folk era, Midnight Special-Linda Ronstadt "Long, Long Time" 1972 YouTube (3:22), which earned her first Grammy nomination, giving us signs of that big voice that would come to define her, remaining vulnerable, yet ultra-feminine.  The film develops Ronstadt’s brief romantic flirtation with singer/songwriter JD Souther, who wrote many of the biggest hits for The Eagles, as well as Ronstadt, like Linda Ronstadt - Faithless Love (live 1975) - YouTube (3:06), co-producing one of her albums, but her biggest leap is pure rock ‘n’ roll, a song reveling in defiance, Linda Ronstadt ~ When Will I Be Loved 1976 OGWT1 - YouTube (2:11), “I’ve been cheated, been mistreated, when will I be loved?”  The enormous sound just leaps off the stage right at you, making a direct hit, literally shaking you to the bones, with Ronstadt becoming synonymous with songs of heartache and pain, where she simply belts out that wounded anguish in ways that are easily understood, becoming a megastar in the process, a fusion of vulnerability and sensuality, the most spectacular female singer of the rock era.  Touring is what generates big bucks and the instant success, yet it’s such a self-destructive endeavor, singing the same songs “over and over again until they start sounding like your washing machine.”  In an era when there were few girl singers singing rock music, probably the most incisive remarks come in an interview at her Malibu home during a walk along the beach, Linda Ronstadt Full Interview Wonderland 1977 (RARE) YouTube (5:41), speaking about the emotional toll of being on the road, the only girl surrounded completely by guys who already have an ego problem being labeled sidemen for a chick singer, but then she expounds on a male aggressive industry directing their hostility against women that unfortunately becomes adapted as part of the overall culture.  Her description of the effects drugs have on rock stars is piercingly accurate, becoming more and more isolated and self-destructive, literally destroying their music, if not their lives.  As if to combat that dilemma, Ronstadt went through a period of taking over-the-counter diet pills to retain her nightly energy, but also decided to stop playing in such enormous arenas, as the experience was so dehumanizing for her as an artist.  So instead, she simply keeps reinventing herself, becoming a trend setter, choosing her own material against the wishes of her agent and record producer, but following her heart, which makes all the difference, singing what she wanted as opposed to what sells commercially.  Because of her enormous popularity, every turn she takes becomes a proven success, because of the careful manner in which she meticulously rehearses and arranges every song, making sure each is her best effort.  The film delves briefly into the decade-long public romance she has with California Governor Jerry Brown, beautifully encapsulated here, Linda Ronstadt Playboy interview | The Pop History Dig, though also wonderfully articulated in an interview for Australian television explaining why differences in political views don’t stop her from performing in troublesome regions, Linda Ronstadt-Don Lane Show 27th October 1983 - YouTube (16:21).  Featuring a host of interview footage about her from artists like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, singing a duo with Emmylou, Linda Ronstadt - "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" YouTube, 1974 (2:27), reserving some of the best material for that trio of female singers (who collectively share a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), Dolly Parton Linda Ronstadt Emmylou Harris - The Sweetest Gift YouTube, 1976 (2:46), championing other female performers where she generously defers to their talent, but also includes an unfamiliar detour, where she’s positively adorable, nominated for a Tony Award in 1981 as best actress for her role in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, Poor Wandering One - YouTube (4:58) before collaborating with a few old friends, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt & Ry Cooder - YouTube 1983 (4:01), even singing with the Muppets, Linda Ronstadt The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss) plus ... YouTube, 1985 (2:58), doing a cameo guest appearance on The Simpsons, The Plow King Commercial (59 seconds), and meeting new friends alike, such as Aaron Neville, Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville Don't Know Much ... - YouTube 1989 (3:35), amusingly reminding him at the Grammy Awards to thank his wife, before breaking out into classic Mexican mariachi music, just killing it with some of the more upbeat and colorful renditions ever heard, LINDA RONSTADT.... La Charreada. - YouTube 1989 (3:35), a ridiculously cheerful song, becoming the best-selling Spanish-language album ever released, including a portion with her 75-year old proud father singing with her onstage, as he was the one that originally brought these songs into their home.  While it’s a long and beautiful career, the incredibly sad end is beyond description (as it was with Mohammad Ali), quite a contrast to the bubbly effervescent girl featured in the film, a perfectionist with a sense of personal integrity, yet a reminder for all to tread carefully and make each moment count, something she did with each and every song, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of star power and poetic grace. 

From an online search, this may be one of her better recorded concerts at the peak of her popularity available for viewing, Linda Ronstadt - Stadthalle, Offenbach, Germany 1976-11-16 (1:16:00). 

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