KUED documentary shows pivotal era of singer-songwriters

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 23 2011 12:00 p.m. MDT

Performances from a 2007 concert tour that reunited Carole King and James Taylor are part of "Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter," Thursday on KUED.

Kevin Estrada

The year 1971 brought Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and the Rolling Stones went on its first "farewell" tour.

But it was also the beginning of a dramatic musical revolution to the acoustical era of the singer-songwriter. It was the year “You’ve Got a Friend” won Grammy awards for Carole King (Song of the Year) and James Taylor (Pop Vocal Performance).

Loosely tied to the 40th anniversary of King’s “Tapestry” album, KUED will air the entertaining “Troubadours: Carole King, James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter” on Thursday, March 24, as part of the PBS American Masters series.

The 90-minute documentary, introduced in January at Park City’s Sundance Film Festival, chronicles the friendship and performance legacy that was cemented at Los Angeles' Troubadour nightclub. Filmmaker Morgan Neville gives a glimpse of the exciting new musical era and the Troubadour performers. At the famed venue, King and Taylor played alongside Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John, who were also interviewed for the documentary.

Vibrantly full of music, history and anecdotes, “Troubadours” is a privileged look at the early days of these performers’ careers.

Along with these musicians’ recollections are home movies and rich archival performance footage. Viewers are treated to Taylor’s first major appearance, at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, and Joni Mitchell playing “California” (in a pink granny dress). These clips, some of which have never before been seen, are mixed with performances from the 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour. The documentary also includes interviews with journalists and music industry figures who give viewers a sense of the club, the artists and their importance in cultural history.

In this age of overproduction and Auto-Tune, “Troubadours” is a refreshing view of the time when a strong singer playing a single instrument — guitar, piano or, in the case of Joni Mitchell, a dulcimer — could write a great song and become a star overnight.

When she first played “You’ve Got a Friend,” King and Taylor were “outside a little dressing room up on the balcony” of the Troubadour. “I just had to find my guitar and figure out how that song went,” Taylor remembers in an interview not included in the program. “I said: ‘She’s written it. That’s "The Star-Spangled Banner" right there.’ ”

King has said the song "was as close to pure inspiration as I've ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside of myself, through me."

With so little known of their personal stories (Taylor was famously reticent and King so press-shy that she didn’t accept her record-breaking four awards at the Grammy telecast), the segments of their personal lives deepen our appreciation for them. There’s an intimate scene of the 60-something James Taylor hugging with his eyes shut the Gibson J-50 on which he first played “Fire and Rain.”

Early in the film, King explains, “When we sprang out of the box there was just all this generational and cultural turbulence. There was a hunger for the intimacy, the personal thing that we did.”

In their attempt to completely define the era, the filmmakers were overwhelmed by the all the bases they needed to touch, and the result is a fragmented view of the pivotal time in music history. A Joni Mitchell interview would have made the documentary more complete, but she’s just one of the influential performers not profiled.

The documentary can be viewed as a sad and cautionary tale of the excesses as the era ended. Steve Martin, whose comic banjo-playing was first seen at the Troubadour, wisely asks, “How long can free love and pot exist as a cultural foundation? It can’t really.”

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