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A brilliant career

'Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice' profiles the beloved songster

The story of singer Linda Ronstadt cannot help but be the story of her voice. In literal terms, Ronstadt's powerful, pure singing voice launched her to prominence and then stardom before leaving her too soon. But as an accounting of the person behind the music and the fame, the appropriately named new documentary "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" affords Ronstadt the opportunity to tell much of her own story, including how she found her "voice" as an individual, an artist, a social-justice advocate and a treasured friend.

One of the great song stylists of the 20th century, Ronstadt broke through in the mid-1960s as the lead singing teenage ingenue of the Stone Poneys. She elevated the band's hit single "Different Drum" (penned by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees) to anthem-like status before moving on to an astonishing solo career marked by 38 Billboard Hot 100 singles (21 reaching the Top 40) and countless honors (including 10 Grammy Awards, Grammy and Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards, an Emmy, and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).

Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk") move us through Ronstadt's career more or less chronologically, after a present-day glimpse of Ronstadt in retirement. Along with Ronstadt's narration (echoing her 2013 autobiography "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir"), Epstein and Friedman tell her story through a wealth of archival materials (including rare concert and interview footage) and new interviews with family members, former bandmates and music luminaries, such as Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Cameron Crowe, David Geffen, Kevin Kline and Aaron Neville.

While acknowledging Ronstadt's sometime struggles with self confidence and substance abuse, these witnesses testify to a woman devoted to family (a distinctly musical one with which she sang "canciones" as a child), one who knew what she wanted artistically and fought for it, and one who showed selfless generosity as a friend. Their descriptions of Ronstadt as a singer and as a person reflect an awe in her talent and career chutzpah and, in some cases, a deep and abiding love. The friendship of Ronstadt and Harris seems especially emblematic of Ronstadt's commitment to doing it her way; she recalls the turning point when she decided to befriend the people who others might view as competition.

"The Sound of My Voice" reaffirms Ronstadt's unerring instincts: against the advice of record labels, agents and producers, Ronstadt followed her musical muse and, by doing so, found commercial success wherever she went. When rock stardom with hits like "You're No Good" and "Blue Bayou" began to bore her, Ronstadt found new challenges on Broadway (with Kline in "The Pirates of Penzance," later immortalized as a film), an album of traditional Mexican folk songs, and collaborations with jazz-standard orchestrator Nelson Riddle, Harris and Parton (the "Trio" recordings), and Neville.

The filmmakers tread lightly when it comes to Ronstadt's love life and her politics, although they cannot avoid a passage on her high-profile relationship with Jerry Brown, then both California Governor and Democratic presidential candidate. By the time we return to new footage of Ronstadt at film's end, her powerful voice cruelly compromised by Parkinson's disease in her twilight years, "The Sound of My Voice" has become a deeply moving story of a remarkable woman, its only real fault an arguable virtue: adhering to the old showbiz adage of leaving the audience wanting more.

— Peter Canavese

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