As with any documentary that buries its nose in its subject’s merits, the ability to enjoy Troubadours will be linked to your tolerance for the topic it celebrates. And while Morgan Neville’s lethargic take on early-’70s singer-songwriters may contain suggestions of a world outside this scene, or entertain ideas about exploring its roots and influence, it never quite gets down to any of that, adopting a pace set to match the music’s languid West Coast vibe.
This is all built around the story of the Troubadour, a humble L.A. club that became a breeding ground for a new generation of gentle rock stars, from the quietly paternal James Taylor to Carole King and Jackson Browne. In Neville’s reckoning, the music they made—literate, stripped-down pop based around piano and acoustic guitar—grew out of an exhausted response to the turmoil of the late ’60s. This is a pat conclusion that, like most things expressed here, never really gets explored, despite a repeating “roots” motif, which visually traces the style back to Leadbelly and ’50s folk.
Instead of presenting basic details, like the history of the club or the broader significance of its performers, Troubadours gets off on vague talk about community and a generous helping of tunes. Coherence and curiosity are sacrificed in favor of long takes of characteristic songs, matched either with performance video or lingering shots of guitar stands and microphones, the camera dipping in and out of focus. This might make for its own kind of exposition, were these not tracks already played to death on classic-rock radio, drained of the middling significance they may have once had. For anyone who’s ready for another full-length rendition of “Fire and Rain,” Troubadours just may be your movie.
The songs establish reminiscence as the film’s stock in trade, with the sunny memories of the stars who were there (a good spread, ranging from Steve Martin to Elton John), merging with those of the intended audience. All this photo-album gazing doesn’t allow much space for insight or new information. It also leaves the film without much of a story, beyond the bland concept of people gathering in a place, enjoying a drink and a song, ducking outside to light up a joint.
To stir up conflict, former Village Voice critic Robert Christgau is imported from cold, miserable New York. He pops up as a villainous voice of dissent, threatening to ruin the party with accusations of arrogance and fluffiness, dismissing the Eagles as a band whose sound was shaped by “having to live off burritos for a week.”
Troubadours doesn’t take time to bother with the validity of his accusations, instead ceding to the real villain of any lazy story set in this period: cocaine. While managing to gloss over any kind of shocking behavior (even James Taylor’s history of heroin addiction is politely soft-played), it positions the switch from weed and psychedelics to harder drugs as the thing that brought the whole scene crashing down. This may be so, and even if the film doesn’t seem entirely convinced, it at least provides an appropriate exit point.