SUNDANCE REVIEW: Troubadours
Director Morgan Neville does an adequate job in retracing the explosion of singer-songwriter talent out of West Hollywood’s legendary Troubadour club, but makes a bad choice by starting now, not then.
PARK CITY -- Speaking as someone whose preteen soundtrack featured “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James,” it’s safe to predict a warm generational embrace for this flashback to the heyday of Carole King and James Taylor. But even those of us with an embarrassing soft spot for the early ‘70s L.A. sound have a right to expect a film that wraps some analytical social context around its swooning nostalgia.
A specialist in music docs – past films have examined Stax Records, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Sam Phillips, Brian Wilson, Nat King Cole, you name it – director Morgan Neville is nothing if not proficient. But in retracing the explosion of singer-songwriter talent out of West Hollywood’s legendary Troubadour club, he makes a bad choice by starting now, not then.
Inspiration for Troubadours was King and Taylor’s 2007 reunion concerts and subsequent tour. And while there’s a ton of terrific archival material and performance clips here, the filmmaker appears to regard his coup as getting King and Taylor to sit down and interview each other. That one-on-one mutual lovefest is about as interesting as a PBS pledge drive. (Didn’t they actually do one last year?) And the movie has at least a dozen too many shots of earth mother King beaming beatifically at Taylor.
Cloying present-day elements aside, Neville does an adequate job of charting the evolution of the Los Angeles singer-songwriter scene, which blossomed as the ferment of the ‘60s was waning.
If there are glaring absences – not getting a Joni Mitchell interview must have hurt -- there are plenty of first-hand accounts from artists who played the Troubadour, among them Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John, who got his American breakout at the club. Comics also were part of the scene, yielding amusing observations from Cheech & Chong and particularly Steve Martin.
What’s refreshing in this age of rampant overproduction and Auto-Tune is performance footage in which a strong singer needed just an acoustic guitar or piano – or in Mitchell’s case, a dulcimer – to captivate an audience.
Neville spends time on King’s path from Brill Building tunesmith-for-hire to a performer in her own right at the urging of her then-husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. The move to the West Coast was central to that transition. Much is made also of her seeming effortlessness in balancing career with motherhood.
The film is less probing about Taylor’s life, only briefly acknowledging his drug problems before declaring him clean since 1983. Likewise it skims over the intriguing history of Troubadour founder Doug Weston, whose abrasive eccentricity drove a lot of artists away.
Perhaps the most unguarded insights come from Crosby, who smiles while recalling the wild window of sexual opportunity between the advent of the pill and AIDS. He also looks back fondly on the days when pot and psychedelics ruled, until coke and heroin came along to kill the party.
A key weakness of the documentary is that it doesn’t do enough to refute the charges long leveled at the Laurel Canyon league by music critics. Neville identifies Taylor’s Fire and Rain as the defining song of a generation tired of fighting and ready to chill and regroup. That impulse has been widely interpreted as one divorced from the realities of Richard Nixon’s America, labeling “the mellow mafia” a bunch of lightweights mired in self-satisfied navel-gazing.
When longtime Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau finally comes on to air that derisive dissent, it’s a welcome relief in a film that borders on hagiography. Not that lack of critical distance is likely to matter to its core audience, as shown by the rapturous whoops and applause that greeted Sundance screenings.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Morgan Neville
Production: Tremelo for Concord Music Group
Producer: Eddie Schmidt
Executive producers: Sam Feldman, Michael Gorfaine, Lorna Guess, Robert Smith
Directors of photography: Nicola Marsh, Arlene Nelson
Editor: Miranda Yousef
Sales: Concord Music Group
No rating, 91 minutes