'The Wrecking Crew': Film Review

The beat goes on

Denny Tedesco’s tribute to the unheralded, chart-topping studio musicians of the 60s and 70s reveals how they crafted the signature pop styles of the era.

They were the musical group nobody had ever heard of, the uncredited stars of hundreds of recordings from the heyday of rock and roll, the backbone and backbeat to some of the biggest hits of the era: they were known as the Wrecking Crew. As a loose, informal affiliation of session players, these musicians rarely received recognition before Denny Tedesco’s irresistibly involving new documentary.

As the son of renowned Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, he pulls together a stellar lineup of interview subjects and samples some of the choicest tracks from the bands that defined the world-famous "West Coast sound." With Magnolia’s committed promotion and a strong social media component, The Wrecking Crew should make an indelible impression among the year’s crop of music documentaries.

The members of this largely unheralded, ad-hoc Los Angeles-based group were never quite fixed, consisting of a shifting lineup of guitarists, bassists, percussionists and horn players who, by some accounts, numbered as few as a dozen or as many as 30. With backgrounds in jazz and classical music, the musicians were versatile in R&B, soul and Latin styles, but primarily credited with boosting the profile of emerging rock and pop acts. Tedesco was widely acknowledged as one of the top lead and rhythm guitar players of the time, along with Al Casey and the young Glen Campbell. On bass, Carol Kaye stood out as the only woman instrumentalist in the lineup and a key collaborator with many of the bigger-name stars she recorded with. Hal Blaine was the undisputed champ of session drummers, playing on a total of eight Grammy Records of the Year during his career. 

Tedesco’s film reveals that the Wrecking Crew was integral to the groundbreaking “wall of sound” production method typically attributed to producer and arranger Phil Spector. But the famously layered sonic style that popularized dozens of 60s performers would not have been possible without the contributions of those uncredited musicians. Brian Wilson relied on Wrecking Crew backing to help craft the Beach Boys’ landmark 1966 “Pet Sounds” album, along with signature surf melodies “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls.” The Crew also played on dozens of tracks attributed to bands who were either entirely fictitious or weren’t accomplished enough for studio recording.

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Tedesco began the project in 1995 after his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A roundtable interview, which also included Blaine, Kaye and saxophonist Plas Johnson, anchors the film, providing the foundation for subsequent interviews with each musician which branch off from the original segment. Blaine had perhaps the most spectacular career, working his way from sideman to trusted Brian Wilson collaborator as his earnings made him a millionaire before a bitter divorce undid his lavish lifestyle. Kaye gives one of the most engaging interviews from among the Crew musicians, her trademark humor making light of the disrespect she faced as a female performer. She goes on to demonstrate some of her trademark riffs with her trusty electric bass.

Much of the footage featuring Tommy Tedesco originates from a low-budget short documentary, also produced by his son, and supplemented by home movies and videos. A rich archive of period photographs shot in-studio depicts the musicians at work and helps contextualize their collaborations with performers both enduring and largely forgotten. The photographs are testament to the range of performers The Crew played and recorded with—not only rock n' rollers, but also artists like Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, and TV’s The Partridge Family.

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Alpert and A&M co-founder Jerry Moss have been longtime supporters of the film and provide an effusive interview attesting to the Wrecking Crew’s unmatched accomplishments. Cher discusses how she was in complete awe of the musicians when she recorded “The Beat Goes On” and “I’ve Got You Babe” with Sonny Bono. In an interview from some years ago, Glen Campbell enthuses about their collaboration on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and other tunes that popularized his country-influenced style.

The film was shot over a period of almost two decades and assembled in a skillfully edited style, the its image quality, recording formats, and technical expertise are somewhat variable throughout, but these minor inconsistencies lend the footage a period authenticity that’s in tune with the analog music of the era. Tedesco’s documentary reportedly incorporates more than 100 historic tracks which resulted in a long lapse before release, as he raised funds via individual donations and a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign to pay thousands of dollars in licensing fees.

The Wrecking Crew excels not just as a tribute to Tommy Tedesco, but also as a testament to the enduring bonds of the guitarist's extended family of musicians and their historic collaboration, which remains unequaled in the history of contemporary American music. 

Production company: Lunch Box Entertainment

Director: Denny Tedesco

Producers: Chris Hope, Jon Leonoudakis, Mitchell Linden, Claire Scanlon, Damon Tedesco, Suzie Greene Tedesco, Denny Tedesco

Executive Producers: Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Clifford N. Burnstein, Dennis Joyce

Directors of photography: Rodney Taylor, Trish Govoni

Editor: Claire Scanlon

Rated PG, 101 minutes

 

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