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When Carole King Made the Earth Move

One of the early scenes in “Carole King: Natural Woman,” a new PBS “American Masters” documentary directed by George Scott, features grainy footage from King’s wedding to Gerry Goffin in August 1959. She’s 17 years old, pregnant, adorned in that unmistakable 1950s way, with puffy hair piled high and lipstick as bright as her smile.

It looks like the small Jewish ceremony took place in a suburban backyard, in the kind of cookie-cutter housing development where an aspiring middle class family would want to live. By then, Carole had changed her name from Klein to King, formed a band and sold a few songs, but she was still unavoidably a child of her conventional times.

“We were all brought up to be cute [and] to marry the nice boy who’s gonna make a lot of money,” she recalls.

Watching this glimpse into her upbringing ignited a minor revelation. For me, like so very many others, King’s music provided the soundtrack to my youth. Her songs spoke to me wherever I was emotionally at the time — when I needed a friend, when my boyfriend was so far away, when I longed to feel like a natural woman.

But only now do I realize that her songs, especially when she performed them in her own authentic, unpolished voice, were speaking to waves of women who had never been spoken to in quite this way before. She not only gave us a musical reflection of our deepest joys, anxieties and desires, she also blazed a remarkable trail from suburban housewife to superstar that I, for one, only now fully appreciate.

Her landmark solo album “Tapestry” was released 45 years ago this month. In the documentary, producer Lou Adler says that the album took three weeks to make and cost all of $22,000. It’s since sold more than 25 million copies worldwide and is one of the best-selling albums of all time.

King’s career as a singer-songwriter is unparalleled: She’s won four Grammys, a Kennedy Center honor and is the first woman to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Now 74, she toured with James Taylor just a few years ago (an amazing performance) and gets to see her name in lights on Broadway thanks to “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opened in 2014 (I’ve seen “Beautiful” twice). She has also become an environmental activist on behalf of her adopted state of Idaho, discovering in the northern Rockies the physical beauty and spiritual respite that eluded her in New York and California.

Carole King and the Obamas applaud at the Kennedy Center Honors in December. Image by Getty Images

The documentary chronicles her story in ways that are charming and inspiring, if occasionally frustrating. The charm lies in the home movies where a four-year-old Carol is playing the piano, her hair in bows and braids, her chubby fingers already comfortable on the keyboard.

Or the captivating footage from an interview with King in what appears to be her home in Idaho — there’s no date or place mentioned — where she enthusiastically plays a sweeping grand piano, her face freckled, her long, frizzy hair swaying with her voice. Or the glimpses of her and Goffin hunched over the piano during their incredibly prolific partnership.

But the task of compressing a long career narrative into a television-size documentary results in odd choices of what to leave in and leave out, especially on the personal side. One of King’s four husbands is not even named. More troubling, the two youngest of her four children are mentioned so quickly that I missed it the first time I watched the film, and they’re never pictured. Whether that’s the fault of the filmmakers or an edict from King herself, we don’t know.

King wasn’t just a natural woman; she was a complicated one, born and nurtured in one gendered environment and leading the way to another, more egalitarian one. The documentary traces that evolution with lovely vignettes and testimonies, showing how her talent and professional ambitions sat uneasily beside her suburban conventionality. She wrote the music to the iconic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” then went out to play canasta that night with her mother’s friends.

“Tapestry” contains songs that can unleash a woman’s most independent desires, and ones that also reveal King’s deep devotion to and reliance on the men in her life. As she sings in “Where You Lead”: “I always wanted a real home, with flowers on the window sill/ But if you want to live in New York City, honey, you know I will.”

She does have an old soul. As Douglas McGrath, the author of the book for “Beautiful,” says in quoting King: “Even when I was a teenager, I was an old Jewish lady.”

Yet somehow King broke free from those internal and external restraints enough to capture the moment when the singer-songwriter emerged on the American musical scene, and she rode that moment to stardom. King pivoted from writing for others to writing for herself at a time when the chaos and disruption of the Sixties was giving way to the anxiety of the Seventies. We turned inward, away from the protest songs and angry challenges to focus on feelings, relationships, longings, and she was there, without artifice or ornamentation, writing in what Lou Adler calls the “universal language for the human heart.”

Carole King’s great gift is that you think she is singing just to you when, in fact, her music reaches the multitudes — especially those of us still struggling to figure out what it means to be a natural American woman today.

Jane Eisner is the Forward’s editor in chief.

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