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Film Sings About America's Troubadours

Documentary offers a fresh, personal look at James Taylor, Carole King, other singer-songwriters


Singer-songwriters James Taylor and Carole King — Keystone/Getty Images

For many of us, these iconic songs by Carole King and James Taylor are the soundtrack of our lives — "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away," "You've Got a Friend," "Fire and Rain" and so many more. Now an engaging new documentary, Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, airing on PBS this month (and available in a two-disk DVD/CD package), reminds us why.

The singer-songwriter movement of the late '60s and early '70s comes into fresh focus through interviews, rare film clips and delicious insights into the L.A. music scene that helped launch the careers of so many major American singing-songwriting talents and future critical successes, including Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and more. The center of it all: The 300-seat venue known as the Troubadour, the West Coast music mecca of its day.

In a recent interview with AARP, director Morgan Neville spilled some inside stories and what he was thinking while making the film.

Nobody's arm had to be twisted. "The idea actually came from James and Carole," says Neville. "Until they reunited for the Troubadour's 50th anniversary in 2007, they hadn't played together in 37 years, including with their band, which includes the great musicians Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar. Then they did their tour last year, which was so big. I think they wanted to hold on to these experiences and to their relationship as musicians, friends and members of that tight-knit L.A. music community, when everyone was starting out and trying to find their voice and their audience."

Think dinner party — with the best and brightest singer-songwriters of the day. "I wanted this to be an intimate and handheld film experience, as if we're all sitting there hanging out with these people, spending time and talking to them, as we would with our closest friends. The music was so personal and had such a complete lack of pretension. It spoke to people — that's rare in art in general. Every fan of this music had, and still has, a genuine connection with these artists. I'm a little younger — I'm 43 — but I heard this music in my parents' house during my growing up years and it's a big part of my life."

Signing up David Crosby was key. "He has such a keen turn of phrase and a compelling cultural perspective. I had never interviewed him before and really wanted him in this film. He's connected to just about everybody from that scene in one way or another. I knew he could bring something special to the project and he definitely did. He started out at the Troubadour in the '60s. He was a folk player from Santa Barbara who would drive down to L.A. and bump into all kinds of people."

Even Steve Martin readily agreed to participate. "Steve doesn't do a whole lot of things like this," says Neville — yet he said 'yes' right away. "People forget that he, too, came out of the Troubadour scene of that time as both a musician who played the banjo and a comedian. As someone who was accustomed to performing solo, he said it was the only time in his life when he really felt part of a scene. It was at the Troubadour that his multitalented career really took off."

The clip of James Taylor playing "Fire and Rain" at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1969 is seen here for the first time. "Even James hadn't seen the clip before. Finding this video deep in the music archives was like finding a gold nugget. James had written the song only two weeks before. He hadn't even recorded it yet; the song wasn't recorded until December of 1969, for his album Sweet Baby James. 'Fire and Rain' at Newport is the moment where you see his songwriting and musicianship take a quantum leap. I let it play in its entirety because editing it would have felt like cheating."

Carole King wrote "So Far Away" for her own reasons — but everyone identified with it, including her daughter. "One of my favorite scenes is when Carole's daughter, Sheryl [one of Carole's four children], talks about what that song meant to her, and how much she missed her mother when she was on the road touring. I have my own interpretation of what that song's about, and everybody else has theirs. In making this film, I felt like I'd already finished half the race before I'd even begun: The music just takes you so far."

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