Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Of Note: Linda Ronstadt and the Sound of Music

What’s sadder than a singer who can no longer sing? It happened to Julie Andrews as a result of nodules on her vocal chords: she lost the pure soprano that had made her the toast of Broadway (My Fair Lady) and Hollywood (The Sound of Music.) But (now 83) Andrews continues to thrive as an actor, children’s book author, and all-around sunny media personality. Now, to the shock of millions of fans worldwide, something similar has happened to one of the pop world’s greatest voices. In 2013, a few years shy of age 70, Linda Ronstadt announced she was retiring from music-making. The reason? She was dealing with fallout from Parkinson’s Disease, which has destroyed her once-powerful vocal instrument.

I remember Linda Ronstadt fondly. As a college student, I recall attending a packed event at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, featuring one of the really big pop groups of the era (Peter, Paul, and Mary, perhaps). The opening act was a little trio called the Stone Poneys, led by a pretty young woman in a short skirt and bare feet.  Yes, Linda Ronstadt. Her voice was strong, and seemed capable of bouncing from power ballads to country tunes to gospel to good old rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t long before she became a solo act—and the highest paid woman on the rock scene.

In the 1970s she was a media celebrity, whether or not she wanted to be. We Californians were both intrigued and bemused when she started dating Jerry Brown, our state’s bachelor governor, circa 1979. In that era, he was an off-again on-again presidential candidate, and their trip together to Africa got plenty of press attention. You could spot the duo on the covers of Newsweek, US Weekly, and People. She also seemed to have a thing for other big names, including (in the 1980s) Jim Carrey and George Lucas.

Much of this shows up in a highly sympathetic documentary. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2019, and is currently in cinemas nationwide. It’s filled with plenty of concert footage, showing Ronstadt at various stages of her career. (We see her looking sexy in an authentic Cub Scout shirt and neckerchief, though the doc doesn’t mention how upset the Boys Scouts were when she dared to desecrate their official garb.) And there are loving tributes from such musical legends as Jackson Browne, Don Henley, and Bonnie Raitt. Particularly special is her loving interaction with sister artists Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, with whom she’s shown harmonizing on a rousing number or two.

What pleased me greatly was the fact that this film remembers the ways in which Ronstadt spread her wings by trying out new musical styles. When she took on, very creditably, the coloratura role of Mabel in a Broadway revival of The Pirates of Penzance, interest in the 19th century wit of Gilbert and Sullivan rose tremendously. I loved what she did in the 1980s, under Nelson Riddle’s baton, with such classics as Billy Strayhorn’s “Sophisticated Lady” and “Lush Life” from the Great American Songbook. And fans of Mexican music were thrilled at her tender Spanish-language Canciones de Mi Padre.

Ronstadt’s eclectic approach is explained by the fact that “I don't record [any type of music] that I didn't hear in my family's living room by the time I was 10.”  Her parents gave her a wide-ranging love for all things musical. At the end of the documentary, she’s back in Tucson, somehow (despite her damaged voice) still happily making music with her nephews.   

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