Sundance review: 'Troubadours' takes James Taylor and Carole King back in time
My entire life, I've grown up positively soaked in the pop culture of the 1960s. After all, when I was born, the decade was just coming to a close, and the pop culture was still fresh. By the time I was in high school, the music was showing up on oldies stations, but because so many of the people making films and television shows were children of the '60s, it was still omnipresent. I'm so familiar with the music of the era that even the stuff I've never actually sought out is still wedged firmly in my consciousness simply because it was ubiquitous.
This year, we're officially a half-century out from 1960, and yet we continue to mine this decade, and it's fair to start asking if there's anything left to say. The new documentary "Troubadours," one of this year's Sundance premieres, looks at the music scene that evolved around the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and in particular, at the work of Carole King and James Taylor, who re-united in 2007 at the club for a series of shows. These two are front and center in the film, and the interviews with them form the spine that the rest of the movie hangs on, but by focusing on the Troubadour, it allows filmmaker Morgan Neville room to look at the folk movement, the rise of the singer/songwriter, Steve Martin, "hoot nights," Troubadour founder Doug Weston, and many more subjects, and the film manages to feel energetic and fresh no matter how well some of this ground has been covered before.
For example, I had no idea freight trains used to run down the middle of Santa Monica Blvd. and Beverly Hills, and that one little digression is an example of how rich and diverse the story is, even if it does keep coming back to the music. Elton John, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Kris Kristofferson, and others show up for interviews, as well as many faces that are less famous but just as significant to the way the "California Music" scene developed. Anyone looking for any dirt on these people or that period will likely be disappointed, as "Troubadours" is obviously a film born of great affection.
What's really great about the film is visiting the recording spaces and the performance spaces where these indelible music memories were created, and seeing the way the community grew and evolved and expanded. So much of this music has become a permanent part of the fabric of modern life that it's interesting to see where and how it began. Watching many of the people who were session players on some of the most remarkable records of the era prepare for a Troubadour Reunion Tour that took place this year is one of the highlights of the film, just listening to the awesome sound of the LA Studio Mafia, as they were informally known. They're gorgeous players, and even if they're not superstars, they are every bit as gifted as the bigger names featured in the film.
I didn't realize that Elton John was essentially unknown in the US before he played the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and they tell a great story about his engagement there and how it changed his world, and I love hearing Steve Martin talk about the experience just because it seems such an unlikely collision of talent. It's also an amazing example of how things worked in an age where media wasn't as all-encompassing as it is now, and when things could still sneak in and explode thanks to one performance at the right time in the right place. Reviews mattered. Word of mouth mattered. These pop culture explosions were organic, unpredictable, and undeniable, and even if Linda Ronstadt isn't a giant star right now, she was at that moment, and being reminded of how much she helped break other performers by performing their songs is significant. There's also a section that talks about how the critics may have been significant at the time, like the infamous Lester Bangs piece about killing James Taylor with a broken bottle, but how that significance faded while the music didn't. It's a solid point, and a reminder that over time, the work is really all that matters. If it matters to people, it will endure, and if it doesn't, it won't, and no criticism in the world will ever change that.
Cheech and Chong talk about the scene, about the way the bar would be packed every night with stars that range from John Lennon to Betty White, and how bands would be formed there at the bar as musicians would meet and hang out. I also dig the section where they talk about the birth of Eagles (Steve Martin tells a great story about being corrected when he referred to them as "The Eagles"), and I'm surprised how funny a lot of the film is. They get into the idea that Eagles were considered by many to be the death of a scene that they supposedly embodied. They're just great stories, and well-told here. Neville is a guy who has been making documentaries about music and musicians for many years, and he displays some real sensitivity here in terms of the interviews and his choices as an editor. I never realized that the Roxy was opened specifically to destroy the Troubadour, and when you look at the club scene in LA today for music, I'd argue no one really won that fight in the long run.
I doubt "Troubadours" will change anyone's mind about the value of this music and the era, but for fans and for people who are curious about the way this scene evolved, it's a really satisfying, enjoyable sit, and there are worse ways to spend 91 minutes listening to James Taylor and Carole King perform. If you're at Sundance this week, this is worth your time, and I'm sure those of you not at Sundance will have a chance to see it in the very near future.