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The Wrecking Crew - Documentary Review

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The Wrecking Crew, released in theaters and on video on-demand this past spring after years in the making, profiles the loosely defined collective of L.A.-based session musicians that played on an astonishing number of famous pop records in the 1960's.  It is commonly understood by many music fans that some of the biggest American groups of that era didn't play the instruments on their own recordings.  The Beach Boys and The Monkees are the most prominent examples, not to mention The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, The Association, and countless others.  But it's perhaps not as widely known that many of those recordings featured the same cadre of players.  The crew also played as Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, and on countless film and TV themes and soundtracks.

Given the many music documentaries released over the past decade or so that have focused on a certain recording studio culture – namely Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and most recently the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom – it was surprising that there wasn’t already a documentary about the 60's L.A. scene out there.  Actually, The Wrecking Crew was in production all along, having been assembled by director Denny Tedesco on and off since 1996.  The film premiered at festivals way back in 2008, and Tedesco had apparently been struggling to raise funds to license all of the recordings used in the film so it could finally be released commercially.

Carol Kaye in session

The Wrecking Crew is refreshing for a music industry documentary in that it is content to simply be a loving profile of a group of talented people.  Tedesco doesn't feel the need to inject drama or tension into the film as many other directors have.  The stories of the legendary music that these players created are compelling enough, as are the personalities of the musicians that Tedesco focuses on the most.  Prolific drummer Hal Blaine (most famous for his iconic drum intro on The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and his role in The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) was the self-professed ringleader of the crew and gets most of the attention here.  Some players who later became big name artists in their own right, like Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, are present as well.  But the movie's most memorable character is Carol Kaye, the ubiquitous bassist and rare female session musician at the time.  Kaye is so sharp and witty in her interviews, and has a charming story ready for each song she’s asked about, that she really deserves her own film.  (Interestingly, Kaye has since angrily distanced herself from the film, claiming that it inaccurately portrays the era and she wishes she hadn’t participated.  She is also adamant the group was never actually called "The Wrecking Crew" at the time, and the term was coined by Blaine years later.)

Tommy Tedesco sitting on the stool, on guitar

The film does focus too much on the director’s late father, Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and to a distracting degree. The younger Tedesco had said that he was persuaded at a late stage to make the film more personal, and he did so by editing in sections throughout the film that offer his own sentimental voiceover narration over home movie footage of his father.  The approach is not only unnecessary, but it gives The Wrecking Crew a disjointed, more amateurish feel than it otherwise would have had. 

But it's great to see a documentary that takes a look at talented musicians that are not household names without feeling the need to argue that they were somehow slighted.  The Wrecking Crew musicians in the film recall the era with pride (and Kaye points out that they were all well paid at the time).  20 Feet From Stardom put forth the idea that its subject back-up singers deserved to be stars by nature of having great singing voices, and they were robbed of that dignity. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, acknowledges that for these hard-working professionals, who were at the top of their game and creating some of the most memorable music of the century, the work was the reward.

This piece was written by Matt Scott and is part of an ongoing documentary review series. New reviews will post on the 2nd Wednesday of every month. Catch the next review on October 14, 2015. 

* The Vinyl Exam does not take credit for the photos you see above. If you know who took these shots, let us know and we will gladly credit them appropriately.  

Matt Scott, photo by Ryan Jones.