In the past few months, there has been great offering of musical documentaries exploring rock music, exploring the 60s and 70s. Rolling Thunder Revue:A Bob Dylan Story, and Echo in The Canyon which looks at LA’s Laurel Canyon music scene. In Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman take us on Linda Ronstadt’s journey.
Ronstadt rose during the 70s, in a male-dominated industry. She did what few women could do, and that was take control of her career, driving it where she wanted. As the hits and arena tours happened, Ronstadt found it taking an emotional toll on her and her artistry. She writes about it in her book, and boh Epstein and Friedman wanted to tell her story and the story of her music as an artist.
I caught up with the filmmakers about telling her story and how they worked with Ronstadt to bring her voice to fans and a new audience in their new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.
I loved the opening because it gave us a great capsule of Linda and for someone like me who knows her name and a few songs, this was a great opening. What was your background with Linda?
Jeffrey: I was a fan. I wasn’t a die-hard fan, but I certainly had many of her albums. I don’t think I had ever really read an interview with her or heard her in an interview. I never gave a lot of thought to who she was as a person. I loved her music, but after hearing her on Fresh Air being interviewed by Terry Gross when her autobiography came out, that’s when my whole thinking about her really shifted. I had a broader impression of her, and I was so captivated and that’s when we jumped in and wanted to make the film.
Rob: I was always aware of her as the creator of some of the great music of my coming-of-age years. I didn’t really pay attention to her as an artist or person until she started branching out and started doing other music. I think it was around Pirates of Penzance when she was singing this beautiful Gilbert and Sullivan soprano arias that I started really thinking about her. I was aware of her and appreciated her, but I never thought that much about her until I realized she was more than just an artist.
Jeffrey: I should also confess that the first record I ever bought was her first hit single.
How do you approach someone like Linda who is so private and here’s what we want to do?
Jeffrey: She was very reluctant at first. She turned us down three times before we got her to come around. Her response was, “Nobody wants to see this film. No one is going to want to fund it.” She said she was bored to delirium even talking about or thinking about the past. She thought we could find a more interesting subject. Those were the responses we got from her. Finally, she agreed to meet. We had a lovely lunch with her. She was still reluctant, but eventually, she came around when we said we wanted to work from her book, and that we found her voice so captivating, beautifully expressed and articulated, and that was the voice we wanted to drive the film. What we said that we could do and that she couldn’t do with the book was to let the audience experience the music instead of having it be described. I think that’s ultimately what won her over.
You show her rise, and you show the toll of showbiz, celebrity and what being famous did to her emotionally. Where did that narrative decision come from?
Jeffrey: It’s all of the above. She vividly describes her dissatisfaction with her artistic life as her fame grew and as her success increased, she played bigger and bigger arenas. It was
something she found less satisfying than playing in small clubs because there was no connection to the audience and the sound was terrible. She talks about having to repeat the same thing that you’d done before because audiences want to hear it. There’s a lot of pressure to keep repeating yourself. I think in some ways; there’s an inverse ratio from success to artistic fulfillment. She was strong enough and clear-eyed enough to say, “This isn’t feeding my soul so I’m going to try something different.”
There are few women from that era who were able to direct their career and survive the male-dominated industry. She could make those decisions. How did you edit that into the narrative as you’re telling this story?
Rob: It’s her story as a woman starting out in a male-dominated industry. She had to navigate that, and she did it very successfully. There weren’t women bass players or guitar players at that time. She was in charge of a band of men and learned how to navigate that.
As Linda describes it, there was sexism, but if you had the musical chops then that’s what made it work and these guys had faith in her musical abilities and that’s what really drove the train.
Jeffrey: It took her a while to gain control of her career. When she started, she was young and naive. Her groundedness as a person and who she was really led her to take charge.
Rob: That said, her choices from the beginning really indicate her instincts. Different Drum, that song was written when she was in her early 20s. It was written by a man about not wanting to be tied down to anyone woman. She flipped that and turned it on its head. She was singing about being empowered to make her own choices.
Showing that ending, the present day was almost heartbreaking to see and watch. You show her resilience in that moment. What was it like for you to shoot that?
Jeffrey: It happened late in the process. One condition of her making the film was her not having to sit down to do an interview or appear on camera. She didn’t want the film to be about Parkinson’s Disease. She just had no interest in talking about the past. We knew it was important to bring the film to the present tense and let the audience have some connection to Linda. We were very clear to her about that, and we wanted to find a way to do it. One idea we were talking about was to have her come into the recording studio and read passages from her book. We wanted that literary voice to be a thread in the film. She considered it but thought it was too artificial. So, she came back with this idea to travel to Mexico on this planned trip she had. That happened very late, it was two weeks before we were going to lock picture. I think for her, that felt like a truthful way to acknowledge her in the present. That is her present, with her family.
How do you pick your documentary topics?
Rob: It’s got to be interesting. It’s got to be a subject that you want to spend 1-5 years of your life living with. Sometimes it feels important and urgent and needs to be explored. Sometimes it’s something beautiful, inspiring and joyful as Linda’s music is. Sometimes it’s both.
Jeffrey: It has to touch our heart in some way. The challenge is as filmmakers is can we create something that will also touch the hearts and minds of the audience?