Between 1968 and 1973, the LA’s Troubadour club, under the crazy brilliance of founder Doug Weston, became a centre for emerging artists that also included Steve Martin, Elton John, The Eagles and Bonnie Raitt as well as Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, David Crosby and two extraordinary voices of their time, Carole King and James Taylor.
In Troubadours, director Morgan Neville documents the rise of the raw and intimate style of music that characterised the era. The movie is full of evocative, moving scenes, but there is something about watching James Taylor’s first ever performance of Fire and Rain at the Newport Folk Festival that is a particular emotional moment.
As the commentary explains, this was post Vietnam and drug excess, a moment when people needed to regroup.
Neville matches that seminal moment by allowing the song to play right through and become a point of reflection.
‘Everyone knows Fire and Rain like an old pair of slippers,’ he points out. ‘But suddenly seeing it performed in front of large audience for the first time, and the audience’s reaction to that experience, means the cinema audience really gets to see what that song was about at that time.’
Neville was at the Sundance Film Festival to promote Troubadours and found that his own viewing of the movie on a large screen and with an audience was an emotional one.
‘You watch it on a laptop and a DVD and suddenly you see it with a crowd and it’s transformed. When you sit together with other people, especially in a music film, it becomes much more emotional. Everyone was crying, including me.’
Carole King, who also went in to the first screening, agrees. In an interview quoted by LA reporter Amy Kin, she says, ‘I was sitting in the back, and people were riveted and they laughed at the funny lines and they cried at the moving parts. It was just thrilling to be there.
Morgan did such a great job representing not only us — the troubadours and singer-songwriters — but the Troubadour club and the context in history of this whole thing. I couldn’t be happier.’
‘We wanted the songs to tell the stories,’ says Neville. ‘We went right through from Blossom to Running on Empty. The songs are about moments in people’s lives and if you can set it up where someone’s hearing a song they’ve heard a thousand times but they’re hearing it differently, that’s a magical moment.’
Neville is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who specializes in history and cultural subjects. Through films on important music subjects including The Brill Building, Sam Phillips and Sun Records, Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach, he has documented stories of songwriters and producers who helped shape 20th century music.
He has also produced projects on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
He’s currently working on a documentary about the Gore Vidal televised debates.
‘It’s about two great intellectuals who hated each others guts and how it presaged the role of TV and how we talk about politics in America,’ he explains. ‘I was a history major at college and I’ve always felt I wanted to tell the cultural stories of LA; hopefully we’re chipping away at the cliche to show it’s also a place where real things are happening.’
‘My parents went to The Troubadour. They were massive music fans who subscribed to every music magazine. They took me to concerts from when I was 10 so it was something I was always familiar with, plus I played music since I was a kid and I was a journalist. So doing projects like this is using all those parts of me, it all comes together.’
Prior to the singer/ songwriter movement that sprung up in the late 1960s, producers employed writers to churn out hits for their labels. New York’s Brill Building was the most famous, producing scores of hits in the 1950s and early 1960s. Carole King and husband and co-writer Gerry Goffin were among the most prolific and successful, consistently writing chart toppers for everyone from Little Eva to Gene Pitney and The Chiffons.
But it was in her career as a solo artist, encouraged by James Taylor, that King really came into her own.
‘We were here to get people to feel and to remind people of their own humanity,’ says Kristofferson of the Troubadour’s new breed of singer songwriters.
‘Carole and James were among those who were looking inside, trying to write songs that were personal about things they were going through,’ says Neville.
‘What I liked about blending current and archival footage was seeing these people back and forth through the years; it connected me to them as characters. They’re all in their 60s now and playing better than ever.’
Taylor’s astonishing talent shines through the film, in the archival footage and in the reunion concert with King in the Troubadour reunion concert in 2008. During the film’s current interviews that he and King give together, Taylor talks movingly about the symbiotic connection that he had with King, saying it ‘defies description.’
It was Taylor who encouraged Carole to perform her own songs, an example of mutual respect between male and female musicians that comes across as a feature of the late 1960s era.
‘Women and men could be together without it being about dating,’ comments singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt.
‘Carol King had the biggest selling album in the 1970s,’ Neville points out. ‘From a feminist point of view it was culturally political. Just by looking how she looked and by sounding like she sounded, she demonstrated that you didn’t have to be a beautiful diva to be successful. Her voice was always a little craggy, and women could say ‘she looks just like me, these songs are speaking to me.”
The film reveals how it wasn’t simply King’s music that made people relate to her.
‘It was very important that we show Carole’s daughter on the film so we can see the whole person, her life in personal context. Family is what Carol is about. I told her, ‘you made a sacrifice to put your family ahead of your career and I want people to know that sacrifice paid off.’ Showing that in the film was very deliberate. (Youngest daughter) Sherry is just so together and so appreciative of what her mother did for her. You see in the film when that six week tour took Sherry away from her mom, it was so heart breaking. Carol said ‘I can’t do that again,’ and she didn’t.’
The 2008 interviews with Taylor are raw and touching. King talks about the importance of family and how she decided to drop out of the public eye and move to Idaho in order to ground herself again; Taylor speaks of his struggle with heroin addiction. He was 35 when he went into recovery.
When asked how he persuaded the reclusive King to open up for the film, Neville says, ‘I’ve known Carol for a decade so there was trust. Carol doesn’t trust a lot of people and she doesn’t do interviews and it wasn’t easy even for me, but once she lets you in, it’s all the way. She has such a warmth to her, she exudes it, and of course it comes through her music.’
‘The most important thing doing interviews, especially with people who have been interviewed many times as a lot of these musicians have, is you really listen to them, open it up, get them out of those anecdotes they’ve told a thousand times before. Obviously with Carol and James we spent a lot of time, with Jackson Browne we had a three hour interview – he was incredibly generous. In fact, we were done and he said, ‘I just want to keep talking about politics’ so we sat back and kept going. All the subjects were so engaged.’
‘I like to make a documentary in a way that matches the subject matter. In Troubadours the music is intimate, personal, so that’s how we shot and edited. We want it to feel like you’re sitting there talking to them and they’re just telling their stories.’
A few years later in 1970, Elton John burst onto the Troubadour scene as one of the last major stars to launch from the club. The tide was turning.
‘In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own/ I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on,’ sang Jackson Browne in his 1977 hit Running on Empty, the anthem of burn-out that Neville deliberately uses to mark the passing of The Troubadour era.
Does Neville see another generation of song writing troubadours coming through with their personal songs, perhaps in reaction to over-produced digital music?
‘There are some great new performers who have some of that raw flavour, I’ve even seen acts recently that remind me of The Band at Woodstock. There’s (Seattle-based folk band) Fleet Foxes and also Low Anthem, they’re kinda hippies! But it’s impossible to say that anything happening today is cyclical. To me it’s all fragments; the idea that anyone can have the cultural impact they had in the 1970s, it just can’t happen, which is a good and a bad thing. Everyone doesn’t have to eat the same food but culturally you end up with less of a shared experience. There are great things happening at a grass roots level but the idea you could be a really great artist like Carol and not tour and sell two million albums is impossible.’