An infectiously fond look at a mellow moment in rock history, “Troubadours” celebrates the 1970s singer-songwriter craze via portraits of leading lights James Taylor and Carole King, as well as the Los Angeles venue that became this genre’s star launching pad. Morgan Neville’s feature casts its thoughtful net beyond merely hooking boomer nostalgists during PBS pledge weeks — though indeed the pic is skedded to debut on the pubcaster’s “American Masters” (in a slightly shortened version) simultaneous with its U.S. DVD release. Limited theatrical runs in a handful of major cities commence Feb. 2.
Opening montage backgrounds various roiling political factors of the 1960s, which fed a burgeoning folk revival and emerging new folksters like Bob Dylan. Simultaneously, mainstream pop was in a giddy yet soulful phase — one primarily sung by black artists, but composed mostly by white suburbanites like New Jersey youths Carole King and Gerry Goffin of the Brill Building music factory.
Meanwhile equally reserved North Carolinian Taylor was wending his own way to success despite several false starts — a first band that fell apart when he went into rehab for heroin addiction (something he wouldn’t fully kick until the early ’80s), and a failed solo debut on the Beatles’ Apple label.
King, meanwhile, after growing up too fast as a teenage careerist and 18-year-old New Jersey bride, found liberation as a divorced single mother in Los Angeles, rock’s new capital. Once Taylor’s star was finally on the rise (we see him introduce a spine-tingling “Fire and Rain” at the Newport Folk Fest), he hired King to play and sing backup, encouraging her to seize the limelight with her own songs. Her LP “Tapestry” wound up being one of the highest-selling albums ever, and a commercial peak to the singer-songwriter phenom. Simpatico as friends and colleagues, the two artists continued contributing to each others’ works; their affectionate banter today lends “Troubadours”an intimate tenor.
Both owed much to the Troubadour, a West Hollywood club that became an industry hangout and ground zero for new folk- and country-rock artists. Among those recalling revelatory experiences there are Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Cheech & Chong, JD Souther , Jackson Browne and Steve Martin (the latter an unlikely but particularly sharp commentator). Even Elton John got his big break here.
But flamboyant impresario Doug Weston was a greedy kingmaker, signing fledgling artists to penny-ante contracts they’d be forced to honor once they’d achieved stadium-scale success. That and other grievances led to the eventual launch of the Roxy, a more artist-friendly rival venue that aimed to bury Weston and did, even as too much money and cocaine was souring the singer-songwriter movement in general by the mid-’70s.
Not everyone loved soft rock; some at the time lamented its navel gazing and wondered where rock’s rebellious edge had disappeared to. But by omitting mention of the era’s myriad, lesser such artists and allowing few dissenting opinions, the pic paints the genre’s peak years as an idyll of relatable sentiments and unforgettable melodies. Hearing vintage or new performances — both Taylor and King sing as well as ever — of such durable songs as “Carolina on My Mind,” “So Far Away,” etc., it’s hard to reject that assessment.
Crafty package’s sound quality is excellent in both delightful archival and first-rate new-performance footage.