On the one hand, Selena Gomez would seem to be an ideal choice to play 1970s pop diva Linda Ronstadt in a recently announced biopic to be directed by David O. Russell. Both singers have strong Mexican-American heritages which they have proudly displayed throughout their careers. Both achieved a measure of fame in their teen years and then were faced with the difficult task of reinventing themselves while being at the center of great public attention. And both struggled mightily with the strain of such reinvention, which required both to withdraw for a bit before regrouping.
Actually, I can’t think of an actress better suited to take on this role, with just one or two caveats.
We’ll get to that in a second. First, for those of you who don’t know her, or did know her and have forgotten, Linda Ronstadt was huge. Maybe not Taylor or Beyonce-huge, but back in 1975, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more recognizable young female presence in pop music. After scoring a hit as lead singer of the Stone Poneys when she was just 18 (“Different Drum”), Ronstadt launched her solo career with a few decent country-tinged albums. She opened for Neil Young. She briefly had a backing band that was about to become the Eagles.
Then, in 1974, she began working with producer Peter Asher. Their first album together, Heart Like a Wheel, soared to Number 1 on the Billboard charts, the first of three number one albums she would release in the ‘70s. Its lead single, “You’re No Good,” became her first and only number one song.
Selena Gomez might be the perfect choice to play Linda Ronstadt
“You’re No Good” showcased Ronstadt’s voice. It is a slow burn of a takedown that requires tenderness and vulnerability at times, before its titanic accusatory chorus. It had been recorded several times before Ronstadt got ahold of it. The first and probably best version prior to Ronstadt’s was the original, released by Whitney Houston’s aunt Dee Dee Warwick in 1963. Warwick did not chart with her version, but other artists did. None took it to the top the way Linda Ronstadt did.
She would go on to dominate the rest of the decade with one big hit after another, covering everyone from The Everly Brothers to Lowell George, from Buddy Holly to a new singer named Warren Zevon. She covered Roy Orbison and several different Motown acts. It seemed as if there was no song Linda Ronstadt could not sing.
That became something of a curse. The purists, who were championing the singer-songwriters of the era, held it against Ronstadt that she was “merely” a cover artist. Add to that the fact that was extremely attractive and dated a variety of headline-grabbing men – from California governor Jerry Brown to film director George Lucas – and some of the snarkier members of the tabloid media preferred to write about her looks and dates over her musical sensibility and voice. Ronstadt has said that being the “girl” rock singer was not an easy path to navigate in the 1970s. Eventually, it led her to back away from the world of pop music. She did Gilbert & Sullivan on stage and began recording music that honored her Mexican roots.
Selena Gomez’ story is by no means identical to Ronstadt’s, but she faced similar dismissiveness when she launched her own singing career. She was labeled as a cute Disney product who really didn’t have all that much to say on her own. She began correcting that impression with her second album, but Gomez clearly went through her own brand of soul-searching in an attempt to figure out who she was as an artist. With her recent success on the streaming series Only Murders in the Building, in which she not only acts alongside venerable comic legends Steve Martin and Martin Short but also serves as producer, she is carving out new and exciting territory for herself.
So, again, I think Gomez will do an excellent job in bringing Linda Ronstadt’s story to the screen. I only have two concerns. The first is director David O. Russell. The mercurial talent who helmed Three Kings, Silver Lining Playbook, and American Hustle, has had a checkered decade. Since American Hustle in 2013, he has directed three movies. The critically-divisive Amsterdam was the latest and it did not perform well. He has not had a critical or commercial hit in over a decade, and more importantly, he has been followed by well-documented stories of erratic and abusive behavior on the sets of his movies.
Gomez is well aware of that reputation, and I assume she has come to terms with what acting for Russell may entail. But I do have one other concern. Her voice. Gomez has a lovely voice, but I would not call it powerful. Ronstadt could blow the doors off any song she took on, and often did. There is simply no way to recreate certain voices.
I don’t know how Russell will approach the vocal performances in his movie. Kasi Lemmons used a hybrid of actress Naomi Ackie’s real voice and recordings of Whitney Houston in the 2022 biopic about another singer with a one-of-a-kind voice. Perhaps Russell will find some similar balance. The Whitney Houston movie was not especially well-received, but that owed more to a superficial screenplay than deficiencies in performance. Hopefully, Russell and Gomez will make sure they have a first-rate script to work with. If they do, this could be a very special movie.