Who are Carole King and James Taylor? Are they the musicians, composers, and singers who created the singer-songwriter generation? What do Cheech & Chong, Steve Martin, and Elton John have in common? Was there really a “mellow mafia,” and why does Robert Christgau hate soft rock? Why was Doug Weston’s West Hollywood nightclub the Troubadour an important link to all of the above?
The 90-minute documentary Troubadours: Carole King * James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, which screened theatrically at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and also aired nationally in truncated form as part of PBS’ American Masters series, answers these questions and more. The film traces the development of the singer-songwriter genre, from the beginning when King was employed as a Brill Building pop songwriter, through to the introduction of folk-rock, and beyond. The historical narrative is framed by interviews and live performances from a Taylor/King duet concert in November 2007, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the famed Troubadour venue, where Taylor and King reunited to recreate their incipient Troubadour 1970 performances.
Director Morgan Neville (Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, Johnny Cash’s America) wisely uses King’s and Taylor’s anecdotes and friendship as a springboard for the larger tale of how a bunch of mostly-Los Angeles musicians helped craft what has become known as the singer-songwriter era. The movie starts in the early 1960s, when King was at the legendary Brill Building in New York City, writing pop hits such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for vocal groups. At the same time, Taylor was attending a New England prep school where he formed a folk duo with childhood friend, guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, who later became synonymous with the West coast soft-rock sound as a studio musician and hired hand. As the instability of the Vietnam War period reached a crescendo, both Taylor and King became solo artists who managed to touch on audience expectations for something more sensitive than raucous rock. As King eloquently explains in the film, “When we sprang out of the box there was just all this generational turbulence, cultural turbulence, and there was a hunger for the intimacy, the personal thing that we did.”
Neville adroitly skips around chronologically as he handles various plot points, which gives Troubadours a wide-ranging quality. Modern-day conversations with numerous people who were part of the emerging scene, including Bonnie Raitt, Roger McGuinn, and J.D. Souther, are interspersed with never-seen-before archival footage. Included amongst these newly uncovered scenes is an early James Taylor appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, King working in the studio in the early 1970s, and home movies of both artists when they were still wide-eyed teenagers. There is also an illuminating, contemporary recollection by King’s now-grown daughter, Sherry Goffin Kondor, who describes how her mother’s back-to-nature hippie-ism was reflected in her huge hit “Natural Woman.”
Of course, the singer-songwriter movement would not have existed if there was not a time and a place for it to germinate. The early 1970s was the epochal moment and Doug Weston’s Troubadour was the location where much of the burgeoning music was introduced to listeners. The DVD takes a sidestep to illustrate how the Troubadour’s Monday night Hoot Nights – essentially open mic opportunities – gave recognition to up-and-coming musicians such as Kris Kristofferson, but also entertainers such as aspiring comedians Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong (the pair were discovered at the Troubadour’s Hoot Night and subsequently signed by producer Lou Adler). There is a notable bit during this chapter on Elton John’s American debut at the Troubadour when he was an unknown English pianist, an event told in hindsight by former Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn.
There are also brief episodes on how the Laurel Canyon area played a part in further developing the singer-songwriter progression, at which point a visibly immersed David Crosby expounds on how sex and drugs were as a big a role to the community as music. Neville does not shy away from controversy, either. He gets Taylor to open up about his heroin addiction (Taylor kicked his habit in 1983) and also mentions Doug Weston’s megalomaniacal behavior, which ultimately caused his beloved Troubadour to nearly close its doors for good.
Troubadours serves its intended audience well, since it is packed with information, footage, and interviews which never dull the narrative. Unfortunately, the bare-bones DVD has no extras, not even a chapter menu, although viewers can move through the different chapters by using a remote control and can also choose between two audio choices, stereo or surround sound. The 35-minute soundtrack CD that supplements this DVD release features nothing new. Songs by Taylor, King, Raitt, and others are not unreleased or rare tracks, rather very familiar album cuts or radio singles, such as Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and King’s “It’s Too Late.”
Currently, the film can be streamed online for free here at the PBS American Masters site.Visit: American Masters | Hear Music
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