A nostalgic music doc full of musical OMG moments.
The Wrecking Crew
I have a solid commute each day, so I listen to a lot of SiriusXM in the car during the morning and afternoon rush. But for as much as I love being able to choose the genre or era of music that will complement my mood at the time, I’m often more interested in what the on-air personalities have to say between tunes. The DJs offer an incredible amount of knowledge about the songs, the albums, and the artists featured throughout the day. The nuggets most interesting to me are stories about what artist might have played on what studio recording of some other artist’s well-known song. My favorite OMG Moment came when I learned Eric Clapton played on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by The Beatles.
The Wrecking Crew is an entire film of musical OMG moments like that one.
The documentary, directed by Denny Tedesco, primarily chronicles the exploits of The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians whose collective body of work, both credited and uncredited (but recognized), can be heard on thousands — yes, thousands — of songs recorded in LA from the late 1950s into the 1970s. Almost all the members have names no one knows, save for Glen Campbell and perhaps Leon Russell. The group’s ranks were fluid enough that no one interviewed is really sure of the exact number of members, but they were a collective whose skills were so good – especially when it came sight-reading music – their services were in demand by some of the biggest names in music (more on that later). The film also offers a glance at the transition of the recording scene from New York to LA.
Deeper into it, though, the film spotlights four of The Wrecking Crew’s best-known names (in those circles). Three of them are saxophonist Plas Johnson, drummer Hal Blaine, and bassist Carol Kaye; the doc looks at their lives and their contributions to music. Taking the documentary’s deepest level is when it spotlights the fourth, arguably most revered, member: guitarist Tommy Tedesco, the director’s father. This is where the doc is at its most personal, of course, as son recounts life with father, and father — via endless archival footage, plus footage shot specifically for the doc — recounts his life in full. The Tedesco-specific portions of the film include personal reflections from Tommy’s widow, Carmie, a nice touch given everyone else who appears on-screen is somehow affiliated with the music industry. (The senior Tedesco is no longer with us.)
The Wrecking Crew wants to be two documentaries – one about the people and the music they made, the other about the music and the people behind it. The film works much better when it functions as the latter.
The parts of the doc involving the other three musicians might be deeper than other moments in the film, but they still aren’t very deep. The presentation of the subjects is fairly rote, which is no fault of theirs; it’s indicative of the film’s execution. The stories of the lives of Johnson, Blaine, and Kaye hit all the marks that barebones bios require – childhood, early career, big break – and they have an obligatory feel to them, as if they were included to somehow give the film a little more heft. (Tedesco’s story hits marks like the other stories do, only more of them.) The best parts with the trio, short of them playing music (getting there, I promise), are when they are together in the “present day” footage shot specifically for the doc about 20 years ago, sitting around what looks like a poker table and having a blast exchanging old stories. Tommy Tedesco is part of that, too.
Finally, that glance at music’s coastal shift from New York to LA is just that – a glance, with a prerequisite mention of the Brill Building, the infamous New York home to so many influential songwriters in the 1960s. Put that all together and the documentary has its interesting moments but is mostly flat.
Then there is the music. My god, the music.
The list of songs on which The Wrecking Crew are studio musicians is staggering. This cannot be overstated, nor can the calibre of talent they worked with (including names like Sinatra and Elvis). To attempt to list examples of songs here is an exercise not in wondering what to include, but in struggling with what to leave out. Clips of the songs are played throughout the film, creating a jukebox soundtrack that has something for everyone, and if the current song playing isn’t to taste, the next great tune (probably of a different genre of music since every genre was The Wrecking Crew’s specialty) will be along shortly.
It’s also an exercise in what not to spoil. The film’s great strength might be the music, but the brains behind that brawn is how the music is presented: it’s almost always a surprise to learn the next classic song The Wrecking Crew played on. Every new scene is ripe to begin with another OMG Moment, and so many of them do.
(Oh, and The Wrecking Crew weren’t above recording TV theme songs, either. There are a few doozies here.)
There are two contributions made that are truly historic and warrant a mention here. The first is that The Wrecking Crew was the session band on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, an album considered by many to be the greatest of all time (Rolling Stone ranked it #2 in their 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time). The second is that The Wrecking Crew was a part of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and can be heard on Spector hits ranging from “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers.
The film is full of these types of stunning reveals, and by the time the closing credits roll, you could build a playlist of the monumental songs The Wrecking Crew appeared on and your iPod would be set for life.
The luminaries interviewed for the documentary are equally as impressive, with many worthy of the word “legendary” before their names, including Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, and Dick Clark (filmed before his health declined). The amazing anecdotes these and other musicians offer, along with an endless stream of archival footage and still photos, are the perfect accompaniment to the music.
This is why The Wrecking Crew ultimately succeeds. The music played and the memories recounted recalls a feeling of sitting around with family and old friends, reminiscing about the glory days of youth with the soundtrack of life playing in the background.