PARK CITY, Utah — Ever since the 1970s, well-to-do hippies have flocked to Laurel Canyon, the tree-lined neighborhood perched high in the hills above Los Angeles. Aside from a country store, a cozy restaurant whose name means “peace” in Italian and a mass of post-and-beam houses, there isn’t actually much to the area other than the omnipresent sense that something magical once took place there.
Forty years ago, Laurel Canyon was home to a collective of artists who wrote some of their most famous music while living there. That’s the story they and others tell in “Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter,” a documentary that centers on Carole King and James Taylor, their role in the singer-songwriter movement and the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, where they launched their careers. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week. (It will air on PBS in March, and will be released as a combination DVD/CD package on March 1.)
King, now 68 with a head full of bouncy, silver curls, said it wasn’t the dreamy time that many imagine.
“They say there were columns of songwriters marching down Laurel Canyon, and that’s the way it’s sort of been portrayed,” said the singer, tucked into a booth at a small Park City restaurant, flanked by the film’s director, Morgan Neville, and her two longtime band mates, Danny Kortchmar and Leland Sklar. “Steve Martin makes the point in the movie that everybody thought Laurel Canyon was the forest, but it was literally only one block away from this major thoroughfare. But I think that’s part of it, because Sunset Boulevard was where all the cool music was happening.”
“And it was cheap then, wasn’t it?” Neville interjected.
“Oh, yeah,” King laughed. “I think to rent my two-bedroom was, like, $225 a month.”
The filmmaker and the performer met a decade ago, when Neville was working on a documentary about the Brill Building, the New York City hub of songwriters that counts among its alumni King, Doc Pomus, Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro and others. After the success of their 2010 Troubadour reunion tour — one of the most profitable of the year, grossing $50.7 million — King, Taylor and their management had explored the idea of expanding the story of that moment in history into a documentary. Neville immediately jumped on board.
“It was music that was everywhere — you just kind of knew it through cultural osmosis,” he said of his interest in the subject matter. “It’s very easy to over-romanticize what was going on, and I wanted to make sure we acknowledged that it wasn’t this kind of Eden of songwriters. On the one hand, it wasn’t as kind of perfect as they described, but at the same time, there was a lot of community going on.” Among other musicians who lived in the canyon during this time were Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Frank Zappa and members of the Byrds and Love.
Being able to trust Neville’s intentions was essential for King, who has famously refused to give many interviews over the years. Even during a sit-down for this article, the singer wanted things done her way: She agreed to be interviewed only if the talk would be brief and she could be interviewed alongside Neville, Sklar and Kortchmar.
“He’s a wonderful interviewer,” King said, looking over at the director. “He makes you want to tell him everything. He makes you understand that he’s not there to get dirt — not that I have a lot of dirt.”
Indeed, if there are any salacious moments in the film, they come from Taylor’s past. Interestingly, his up-and-down relationship with songwriter Carly Simon is completely ignored — even though the two first met at the Troubadour in 1971, when Simon was opening for Cat Stevens. A heroin addict in his younger days, Taylor does admit on-screen that he remembers little about that period, even if he was riding a wave of popularity after hitting with King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and his own “Fire and Rain.” (Taylor was unable to attend the film festival or comment for this story because he was about to embark on a concert tour.) For her part, King was on a roll with “Tapestry,” her classic 1971 album featuring “I Feel the Earth Move” and “It’s Too Late.”
“James in that time might have been memory-impaired, and he freely refers to that,” King said.
During one scene in the film, the two are interviewed together at the Troubadour, which in the early 1970s was a home away from home for musicians including Tom Waits, Elton John and Harry Nilsson. King asks Taylor outright when he finally kicked his drug habit, evidence of the pair’s comfort level with one another. King comes across as an expressive, mother bear type, while Taylor is more soft-spoken and reserved. Despite their personality differences, King says, she and Taylor used to joke that they were the “same person.”
“Clearly, we’re not. But we rarely disagree. We’re of like mind,” said King, reflecting on the reunion tour. “The idea of having tickets for charity and things like that, we worked that out together. Set design. It was a collaborative process.”
Hours after this interview, King took the stage to perform for a handful of festivalgoers. It seemed as if most of the people in the crowd singing along to hits such as “So Far Away” and “Natural Woman” were baby boomers, but the songwriter says in the last year she’s stumbled across a younger audience discovering her music.
“I expect our generation to show up, because it’s like we remind them of how they were when they were young and gosh, we’re still here,” she said. “But the younger generation is really exciting for me to see, because they know that this is part of music history and know some of the music in varying degrees. But every person that age generally is saying, ‘Wow, this is great to learn. I had no idea.’ “
And while she may downplay the so-called idyllic nature of the days in the canyon, King makes it clear that she doesn’t underestimate the importance of the music that came out of that era.
“The reason people put so much emphasis on that period is because of something I’ve heard from so many people: That music was the soundtrack of our lives,” she said. “I hear from people who are rhythm and blues aficionados, and it got to them. It got to a woman that I spoke to that lived in Cambodia. It got to the farthest corners of the world, so clearly it had importance for a lot of people. That’s why the period is romanticized, because what that music meant to people just became larger than life.”