Denny Tedesco initially completed his music documentary The Wrecking Crew in 2008, but for years could never secure a release due to a laundry list of rights issues. Popular music doesn’t come cheap, particularly for documentaries already on a shoestring budget. But finally, through the combined efforts of various crowdfunding campaigns and film festivals, Tedesco’s film about a special breed of 1960s studio musicians is getting its due in a limited theatrical release.
As rock ‘n’ roll became the dominant musical force in the late 1950s and early 1960s, studios began to rely ever more heavily on session players to fill out an artist’s sound. Two singers like Sonny & Cher can only do so much on their own, after all. Enter a team of hired guns known in the industry as The Wrecking Crew. Guitarist Tommy Tedesco (Denny’s father), bassist Carol Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, saxophonist Plas Johnson and a dozen others (including a young Glen Campbell) would help shape the rock music landscape of the ‘60s and beyond. Together, the team contributed to the sound of The Beach Boys to The Mamas & The Papas to Sam Cooke to just about everyone in between.
Tedesco began working on the film as a way to honor his father, who passed away in 1997. The full feature is sort of a Frankenstein monster built around that initial concept. It was pieced together over a number of years, and occasionally the seams definitely begin to show. What begins as a chronicle of the life and times of Tommy Tedesco quickly shifts gears into an overview of the team as a whole, briefly highlighting each member and their involvement with some of the biggest hits of the era. Working with this format, it never settles on any one topic for too long. I’d have loved for them to spend time discussing more of the downsides of this line of work, like how it felt to go uncredited so often and for so long.
I get the feeling Tedesco doesn’t want to bite the hands that feed him by railing too hard against the record companies. It’s not difficult to see why, either. They did employ his father and the rest of the Crew for years, and while Kickstarter raised a chunk of the film’s licensing fees, the record companies (reportedly) at least tried to meet them halfway, so to speak. The result feels like Tedesco soft-pedaling his subject a bit, but that’s probably to be expected. After all, this was never meant to be a slam against a superficial industry, but rather a chance to finally give credit where it’s sorely due. Nevertheless, it still feels like there’s a more cynical side to this story bubbling just under the surface, waiting to be explored.
While the film itself is cut together somewhat haphazardly, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the music one bit. These tunes have become timeless for a reason, and it’s all up there on film. There’s a wonderful electricity to watching these seasoned pros talk shop for 100 minutes. Carol Kaye illustrates for us how she landed on the bassline for “The Beat Goes On,” turning it from a fairly typical ‘60s pop tune to one of the era’s more iconic earworms. Then, she turns around to marvel at the work Brian Wilson coaxed out of her while recording with The Beach Boys.
I don’t imagine this film will hold many surprises for the true music junkies out there. This doc is by no means a deep exploration of the era, but for the rest of us casual music fans, part of what makes The Wrecking Crew work so well is how it plays like an ever-expanding catalog of amazing titles. For all of the Crew’s talk about the artists and producers they met in their day, it’s little moments like Plas Johnson casually playing the Pink Panther theme on his sax that really make this an exciting experience. “Geez, he did that? And that? THAT TOO?!” As the credits continue stacking up, it’s incredible to think that so few did so much to shape the musical landscape.