This summer has been a good one for music documentaries, and two playing at the Magic Lantern represent the yin and yang of the form. Both films shine a light on '60s and '70s rock icons — David Crosby in one, Linda Ronstadt in the other — who were hugely influential and successful in their respective genres, whose personal lives were dissected in the spotlight and whose health problems have impacted their careers.
What separates them is tone. David Crosby: Remember My Name is a refreshingly candid look at an infamous figure; Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, meanwhile, is a fairly hagiographic but nonetheless enlightening portrait of a powerhouse vocalist who everyone seems to love. The films employ a similar stylistic conceit — a collage of archival footage, talking head interviews and live performances tell the stories of these remarkable careers — but arrive at different conclusions.
Crosby is front and center in Remember My Name, mainly because most of his friends and collaborators want nothing to do with him anymore. By all accounts, he's "insufferable." "Difficult." "Wacko." As Crosby himself describes it, he has a "big ego and no brains."
Before all that, he was a member of the hugely influential '60s folk-rock band the Byrds, but after being kicked out of the group (a common refrain in his career), he became an even bigger star in the vocal trio Crosby, Stills and Nash. The lush harmonies in their music didn't translate to their personal relationships, and none of them — including wayward fourth member Neil Young — are on speaking terms with Crosby. It's not just his drug problems, which led to highly publicized prison time; it's his prickly personality and temper.
Now in his late 70s, Crosby has suffered multiple heart attacks and lives with diabetes, and yet his voice is still as powerful as ever. Remember My Name finds him at his most refreshingly candid, and facing down the realization that he needs to settle his books before his time is up. It's a powerful and empathetic look at a cantankerous and complicated guy.
Appropriately enough, the subject of Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is heard more often than she is seen. The singer retired in 2011 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and has lived privately since, rarely granting interviews and declining to attend when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But she's an engaging narrator of her own story, and the film leaves it to some industry legends — Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, David Geffen — to appear on-screen and testify to her brilliance.
Anyone with only a passing familiarity of Ronstadt's work will no doubt be bowled over by the diversity of her catalog. Ronstadt began in a folk trio called the Stone Poneys (their best known track is the Mike Nesmith-penned "Different Drum") and later mastered the art of the rock 'n' roll single, but she also made unexpected detours as a torch singer and an opera star. She was equally adept at country, teaming up with Parton and Harris on the great 1987 album Trio, and later explored the traditional music of her Mexican father.
Ronstadt was, at the height of her fame, the highest paid woman in rock, and the first artist to have an album go double platinum. But what comes through most clearly in this film — other than the undeniable power of her singing voice — is her humility and her camaraderie with other artists, as well as her savvy for navigating a male-dominated industry.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) have made what amounts to a film adaptation of a Wikipedia entry, and for a subject so vibrant and willing to experiment, it's a somewhat disappointing tact. Still, the film argues — and quite convincingly — that even though Ronstadt was an interpreter of other peoples' work, she brought a style to her music that was all her own. ♦