“I get ‘em mixed up a lot, those Troubadour shows. My memory for places and things has always been lousy. I complained to my brother, Livingston, a couple months ago that I couldn’t remember anything and he says, ‘James, you could never remember anything. You just can’t remember that you could never remember anything.’” – James Taylor
Despite his difficulty recalling past details, James Taylor has enough interesting things to say about the blossoming period for singer-songwriters in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s in Troubadours. He’s capably aided by numerous others in this feature-length documentary on the prime spot for such performers, Doug Weston’s Troubadour.
The lengthy list of interview subjects reminiscing about the West Hollywood venue as well as the cultural and musical revolutions happening includes Carole King, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Cheech & Chong, Steve Martin, Kris Kristofferson, Elton John, J.D. Souther, Roger McGuinn, Peter Asher (Taylor’s manager), Lou Adler (head of Ode Records and producer of King’s “Tapestry”), Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, photographer Henry Diltz plus critics Robert Hilburn and Robert Christgau and author Barney Hoskyns.
As a byproduct of their 2007 reunion appearances there in celebration of the club’s 50thanniversary and the subsequent CD/DVD release from those dates, the focus of the doc surrounds Taylor and King. That angle is fine, especially when their interviews are illuminating and the footage includes Taylor debuting “Fire and Rain” at the Newport Folk Festival and King doing a jaw-dropping solo performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in 1971.
Director Morgan Neville shifts together a number of different pieces into an engrossing narrative that runs from King’s days writing songs as part of New York’s infamous Brill Building to the re-location of the music world to the west coast, the Laurel Canyon hippie influence, collaborative process among performers and career-making moments. Archival film combines with interviews, and sets up King and Taylor’s return to the Troubadour stage three years ago.
There’s a thread that weaves the changes occurring within the music industry while subtly acknowledging the ongoing social upheaval of the times. As King mentions early on, “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.”
Troubadours expands its scope in order to touch upon the influence of Joni Mitchell in incorporating her life experiences growing up in Canada and moving to America and transforming that into song poetry; its eccentric owner and fine judge of talent, Doug Weston; Hoot Night, which highlighted unsigned comedic talent such as Cheech & Chong and Steve Martin; and the view of marijuana as creative and social “sacrament” before harder drugs ravaged the artists and scene.
As mesmerizing as the documentary is, and while I am recommending it for its inside look at a nearly-forgotten era of music, Troubadours still left me wanting more, as if it’s 90-minute length was an abridged version. A musical family tree occasionally blossomed onscreen to give an indication of what happened prior to the existence of the singer-songwriter crowd, but the idea got a little muddied up when Crosby discuss matters as if he was just starting his career at the same time as these other musicians. A similar confusion occurs when the film bounces from clip of prime Steve Martin in the mid-‘70s back to the singer-songwriter heyday. And bonus clips featuring additional interview footage would have been enlightening.
A 10-track CD in this package features a glimpse of Troubadour alumni. It features ‘70s era selections by King, Taylor, Elton, Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Tom Wait and Little Feat among others.