A love letter to songwriters
By David Malitz
Friday, February 4, 2011
Those super-serious dudes and journal-emptying ladies who populate your local open-mike night? “Troubadours” is the kind of movie that gives them a reason to keep dragging an acoustic guitar up on stage and hoping against hope for stardom. Morgan Neville’s new documentary is a casual love letter to L.A.’s thriving singer-songwriter scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s, with old friends Carole King, James Taylor and the iconic Troubadour venue — “the Grand Ole Opry of singer-songwriters,” as it’s called in the film — serving as a base.
You learn a little, you get to listen to some generation-defining music and David Crosby talks a bit about sex and drugs. Basically, it’s the boomer experience condensed to 90 minutes.
If only more of those 90 minutes were devoted to King. It is her story that’s worthy of a full treatment, one that involves wholesale changes in the music industry and how singer and songwriter — for a long time two very different professions — eventually merged. Her beginning as a behind-the-scenes teenage hitmaker in the early ’60s, sitting in Manhattan’s Brill Building and churning out songs for the likes of the Shirelles, the Chiffons and the Drifters, gives good insight to the end of music’s Tin Pan Alley era. Her transformation from timid performer of her own material to Grammy queen speaks to what she calls a “hunger for intimacy” that powered the scene. She lights up the screen every time she’s on, whether it’s old black-and-white photos, vintage performance footage or new interviews conducted for the film. Neville treats his subject as if she has a halo over her head at all times, but it’s hard to blame him.
Taylor’s portion of the story is a little more stiff, or maybe that’s just Taylor. He admits early on that he remembers very few specifics of the era and rarely seems comfortable on camera, particularly during the hokey segment in which he and King reflect, nearly 40 years later, back at the Troubadour. The most striking moment in which Taylor is on camera is footage of him performing the not-yet-released “Fire and Rain” at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. The song may seem like a gentle hymn now, but a 21-year-old Taylor, looking straight out of “Easy Rider” central casting, performed it with a steely stare and sullen intensity without sacrificing the inviting melody. It was the sonic opposite of Bob Dylan going electric on the same stage just four years earlier but hardly less impactful.
Taylor’s long battle with substance abuse is addressed but certainly not lingered on, which fits the film’s tone. “Troubadours” is not meant to harsh any mellows. Neville has rounded up a batch of talking heads who give firsthand memories (Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Kris Kristofferson, among them), critical insight (former Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn) and some comic relief (former Troubadour regular Steve Martin) all while singing the praises of the glory days. A little more original performance footage would have been nice, if only as an extra reminder that the artists who now populate the easy-listening stations on the radio were once very young (so young!) and very vibrant.
“Troubadours” doesn’t quite do the job convincing viewers that these soul-bearing singers armed with acoustic guitars were revolutionary. But it does seem like it would have been a whole lot of fun to be there while it was happening.
Contains nothing offensive, except scenes of David Crosby talking about sex.