"Troubadours: Carole King, James Taylor, And The Rise Of The Singer-Songwriter" debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific, 7 p.m. Central/Mountain in most markets as part of PBS' American Masters series. Check local listings.
Morgan Neville’s documentary Troubadours opens with the rowdy sounds of the late ‘60s rock revolution, which quickly fade to the more plaintive music of James Taylor and Carole King, from a recent reunion gig at LA’s famous nightclub The Troubadour. For some rock fans and cultural critics, that transition from hard to soft in the early ‘70s was a travesty—a betrayal of the hard truth-to-power ideals of an activist generation. But Troubadours has a different take. Where rock writers saw sellouts, Neville sees artists, working just as hard as their louder/faster predecessors to express what they saw of a world in crisis.
Drawing on new interviews and rare footage—including film of a young King working at the Brill Building, and Taylor debuting “Fire And Rain” at the Newport Folk Festival—Neville traces the roots of the singer-songwriter movement and the California soft-rock scene to Tin Pan Alley and the hootenannies, granting it more historical legitimacy. The New York folk and pop scenes ran parallel in the early ‘60s, with the former prizing stripped-down, socially engaged storytelling and the latter striving to appeal to young people by capturing their lives in code. Stalwarts of both moved west later in the decade and started dabbling in each other’s fields. The result was a musical revolution as dramatic as the acid-rock era that preceded it.
Neville pads out Troubadours with a few too many generational signifiers: shots of Vietnam protestors and twirling flower children, interviewees who boast of shaking up a rigidly stratified society, et cetera. There’s a “yeah man, the sixties” vibe to the documentary that’s hard to take at times, especially for anyone who grew up inundated with Baby Boomer propaganda about how wonderful everything used to be when hippies walked the earth. (Not that they don’t have reason to be proud of themselves, but still: The broadly sketched Legend Of The Love Generation has become a cliché, no matter how grounded it is in truth.)
What Troubadours does effectively get across is the excitement in Laurel Canyon as the decade rolled over and as King and Taylor were joined in the hills by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, while elsewhere songwriters and performers as wide-ranging as Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Elton John, and Steve Martin found their own places in the new musical order. The musicians who lived in the Canyon and gathered at the Troubadour weren’t looking to soften-up rock; they were looking to toughen-up folk, by adding elements of pop and personal confession and performance art.
Troubadours is unlikely to convince any skeptics. The musicians Neville interviews don’t make the case for themselves based on the music so much as on the enthusiastic reaction of their fans and peers. (Briefly, Roger McGuinn talks about the cultural meaning of country music at the time and what a radical act it was for some of the acts back then to play country to crowds full of hippies, but the thought never goes very far.) Still, fans of the era will appreciate the photos and home movies, the attention paid to the contributions of the ubiquitous sidemen known as “The Section,” the acknowledgment of the significance of a good Robert Hilburn review, and the beautiful notion that one person with one instrument could write one great song and become a star overnight.