Here’s a small but curious oddity in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman‘s Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which will open just after Labor Day.
The film begins with footage of Ronstadt, 73, visiting the Mexican town of Banamichi, where her grandfather was born, and listening to a music festival. A significant portion of the doc is about Linda’s ethnic as well as musical identity. The last 25% is about Ronstadt’s decision to musically celebrate her Mexican heritage with 1987’s “Canciones de Mi Padre” as well as “Mas Canciones” (’91) and “Frenesi” (’92).
The film conveys a clear sense of Ronstadt having found spiritual fulfillment and completion by way of embracing her family’s history and traditions.
Except all through the ’60s, ’70s (her biggest commercial decade) and most of the ’80s nobody knew Ronstadt was of Mexican descent. For the simple and obvious reason that she has a German last name. In the doc media mogul David Geffen and fellow troubador Jackson Browne both say they didn’t know about Ronstadt’s Latin ancestry. Nobody did until she went ethnic in the late ’80s. All fine and good, but that’s a significant cultural-identity issue — German last name vs. Mexican heritage — so you’d think that Epstein and Friedman would include a line or two of explanation. But they don’t.
In a statement provided to Hollywood Elsewhere, the filmmakers said that “we only went back as far as her grandfather, the generation she would have personally been acquainted with. Otherwise it was just too much backstory to work in, and didn’t seem relevant to her musical story, which was our focus.”
I understand this answer, but ignoring where “Ronstadt” comes from still seems a bit odd. The Wiki fact is that Linda’s great-grandfather, graduate engineer Friedrich August Ronstadt (who went by Federico Augusto Ronstadt) “immigrated to the Southwest in the 1840s from Hanover, Germany, and married a Mexican citizen, eventually settling in Tucson.”
It’s a minor omission and unimportant in the greater scheme of Ronstadt’s musical life, but the decision to avoid mentioning Friedrich or Federico is still a head-scratcher.
So here’s a theory or, if you will, a suspicion. The reason Linda’s great-grandfather is completely ignored is because it would have been politically incorrect to have mentioned him. [Full disclosure: My mother’s family, named Grube, was half-German.] The arc of the last third of Linda’s life was about reconnecting with her Mexican family roots. The movie, as mentioned, is all over this aspect, but no one wants to hear about some knockwurst-and-sauerkraut guy from Hanover, Germany who came to this country 175 years ago. Even if a brief mention of same would have explained the basics.
Because whiteness, let’s be honest, isn’t especially cool these days. Certainly by the standards of the progressive community. The basic agreement in media circles is that white culture (whether descended from England, Germany, France, Russia or the Nordic countries) can be acknowledged but is better off ignored. Because we’re living in an era of positive progressive redefining in which non-white cultures are experiencing a significant upsurge, media-recognition- and ethnic-celebration-wise.
Journalist friend: “I don’t get it. Why would it be politically incorrect to mention that Linda Ronstadt’s great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in the 1840s? Most Americans are of European ancestry. This is news? Or some kind of anti-p.c. bombshell? Because of Hitler’s rise to power 80 years after he emigrated? Even in the anti-white-guy, left-wing-millennial-driven progressive culture we have, the leading Democratic presidential candidates (Warren, Buttigieg, Biden, Sanders) are white, most Millennial wokesters are white…I mean, it’s still mostly a white country! It’s not as if having white ancestors has become a crime.”
HE to journalist friend: “In all sincerity and without being facetious, being white has become a kind of vague cultural misdemeanor. Within the p.c. realm, I mean. You can’t say it isn’t at least regarded with a certain suspicion. At the very least whiteness is now looked upon as nothing to be especially proud of, and perhaps something to half-apologize for. A tribe of entitled plunderers, exploiters, marauders, takers…murderers of native cultures. The doc is partly about a great singer embracing her native roots when she entered middle age, and mentioning a German ancestor in this context would muddle that message.”
Journalist friend: “I just think they had too much detail to deal with and didn’t want to go back that far. The Mexican element of Ronstadt’s heritage that the film emphasized wasn’t merely some trendy p.c.. “Look, she’s really Hispanic!” stretch. Her Mexican side was a genuine exotic element of her persona back in the ‘70s — not simply because there were a lot fewer Hispanics in the popular culture back in the “Chico and the Man”/Cheech Marin era, but because Linda Ronstadt didn’t, at first glance, look or SEEM Hispanic. To those of us who were teenagers at the time, it was like: ‘What, she’s Mexican?’ It barely computed. So it was — and is still — news.
“Beyond that, let’s say that if this small music documentary had included a boring minute or two about her German great-grandfather, I’m not sure that the p.c. police would have been all over it.”