REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“The Wrecking Crew” is a documentary, which focuses on a loose-knit cadre of Los Angeles-based studio instrumentalists. Enshrouded in anonymity, they provided the backing sounds for countless hit songs back in the ‘60s. You can hear them in the background of classic recordings by the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Wayne Newton, Jan and Dean, The Mamas & the Papas, and the Tijuana Brass.
However, unless you are an industry insider or hardcore aficionado, you have probably never heard of any of these studio musicians. Filmmaker, Denny Tedesco, has made “The Wrecking Crew,” in the hope of changing all that and belatedly giving these musicians the credit that he feels they deserve.
As the documentarian acknowledges in an early narration, he is hardly unbiased. The documentarian is the son of Tommy Tedesco, one of the studio musicians, who is prominently featured in “The Wrecking Crew.” The senior Tedesco was hailed by “Guitar Player” magazine as the most recorded guitarist in history. In addition to performing on numerous top 20 hits, he provided the distinctively twangy intro for the theme song for television’s “Bonanza.” A sense of filial affection pervades the film. It more than compensates for the filmmaker’s acknowledged lack of objectivity, usually a key element of any documentary.
Glen Campbell is cited as a one-time studio musician, who made the transition to successful vocalist. Except for one momentary stumble, he is largely lucid. This antedates Campbell’s development of Alzeimer’s disease, so poignantly detailed in the documentary, “I’ll Be Me.”
In addition to Tedesco pere and Campbell, the film includes the reminiscences of fellow Wrecking Crew stalwarts, such as drummers, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, and bass player, Carol Kaye. The latter recounts what it was like to be the only female, who participated in the studio sessions. Kaye also demonstrates how she tweaked the bass line for “The Beat Goes On” and helped make it a hit for Sonny & Cher.
Do you recall the brouhaha that arose when it was discovered that The Monkees didn’t play their own instruments? Hey-those guys were actors, who portrayed members of a pop-rock quartet back on a sixties television show. Yet, some expressed outrage when they learned that studio musicians provided the instrumentals for the show and recordings.
As the film makes clear, that was common practice in the industry. Even many big name bands engaged in an elaborate charade. They went on tour and performed for adoring fans. However, when it came time to record their albums, the band members were replaced by studio instrumentalists. Brian Wilson, whose genius fueled the success of the Beach Boys, details his preference for using studio musicians in lieu of his bandmates. He did so when he recorded “Pet Sounds” and “Summer Days.” In reference to the Wrecking Crew, he recounts, “They were the ones with all the spirit and all the know-how.”
Others on hand to extol the virtuosity of the Wrecking Crew are Dick Clark, Frank Zappa, Nancy Sinatra, Cher, and Herb Alpert. Their observations prove illuminative.
“The Wrecking Crew” film joins a burgeoning subgenre of documentary films, which document heretofore unheralded participants in the music business. “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” focused on the Funk Brothers, the studio musicians, who played on the hits from Berry Gordy’s label. Thirty years after they last played together, the film interviewed many of the musicians. This was augmented with updated renditions of over a dozen classic Motown hits. This included Ben Harper’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Meshell Ndegeocello’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” as well as Joan Osborne doing “Heat Wave” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” Another documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom,” profiled some of the back-up singers, who enrich the hit songs by the stars, who are far better known. The film includes the current-day song stylings of the back-up singers, many of whom are aspiring soloists. “The Wrecking Crew” suffers from the absence of any comparable performances.
Work on the film commenced shortly before the 1997 death of Tommy Tedesco. “The Wrecking Crew” debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival back in 2008. It then became the closing night film at that year’s Nashville Film Festival. epitomizes the perils of making a small budget documentary about the music business. The film may seem disconcertingly dated. Indeed, many of the film’s talking heads, most notably Tedesco and Dick Clark, are long since dead. However, the cost of licensing fees for the music in the film proved prohibitive. A Kickstarter campaign generated the requisite $300,000 to belatedly enable theatrical release.
“The Wrecking Crew” contains some rueful recollections by studio musicians, who bemoan the downturn in their career trajectories. However, the film ends on an upbeat note. On screen script specifies, “No musicians were harmed in the making this film and no drum machines were ever used.”
“The Wrecking Crew” is a heartfelt testimonial to studio musicians. As the film documents, their contributions were vital elements in a string of hit songs.
*** PG (for language, thematic elements and smoking images) 102 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.