The back story to this incredibly engaging and equally informative music documentary is almost as fascinating as the film itself. In one sense “The Wrecking Crew” is a tribute by Danny Tedesco to his father Tommy, a guitarist in the group of Los Angeles session players who—quite anonymously—did the instrumentals on a great many of the pop music classics of the sixties and seventies (not to mention iconic TV and movie themes), and to his mostly little-known studio collaborators. (A few of them, like Glen Campbell, eventually became headliners in their own right.)
But it’s also a tribute to Danny’s persistence. He began filming in 1996, interviewing the musicians themselves (among them his father, bassist Carol Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine), stars with whom they worked (Campbell, Herb Alpert, Cher, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork of The Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, Brian Wilson and others), record producers, engineers, TV hosts (Dick Clark) and other observers (Frank Zappa). By 2008 he had edited the interview footage, lots of archival material (including shots of Phil Spector, for whom they created the the famous “Wall of Sound”), and loads of song snippets into the finished film, which made the rounds of festivals. But he couldn’t afford to cover the costs of obtaining the rights to the music to distribute the film publicly, so it remained in limbo for five years, until a Kickstarter campaign to pay the licensing fees. The fact that it’s finally being released will certainly please historians of popular music, but more importantly will bring smiles to the faces of anybody old enough to remember the songs and even those who aren’t.
The centerpiece of the film are the reminiscences of the musicians, who accompany their recollections—including observations about how much work they were getting, the effect on their families, the money it brought in, the sense of camaraderie they developed, and the occasionally tense episodes when band members found that they weren’t going to be called on to perform the instrumentals themselves (complemented, however, by occasional admissions that they could never had done them so well) —with performance snippets to illustrate what they’re saying. The fact that they often appear together seated at a table allows them to talk to and about each other, as well as fill in, or even correct, what somebody else has said—though their manner is always jovial and supportive. What emerges is a portrait of a group pleased that their contribution to American culture is finally being belatedly recognized, after some very lean years when Tedesco, for example, went so far as to appear on “The Gong Show” in an absurd costume, singing a humorously mournful song about how far he’d fallen—a sign that times had changed, and performers were now singers-players-songwriters who insisted on doing their pieces themselves.
Interviewees in “The Wrecking Crew” often bring up Milli Vanilli, whose career imploded with the revelation that the vocals on their records actually weren’t their own. It’s also remembered that record company executives refuses to allow the Crew’s names to be printed on the LP albums for fear that young purchasers would no longer idolize the stars who were emblazoned on the covers. But it’s frequently noted that the times—and the expectations—were very different (and frankly more innocent) half a century and more ago, and that what was done then can’t really be judged by the standards that prevail today. In any event, everyone can be thankful that the contributions of The Wrecking Crew to pop music in the mid-twentieth century are finally being recognized—some of them have even been named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—and that Danny Tedesco has encompassed their careers in such a winning package.
Incidentally, the Crew’s work with the Beach Boys is dramatized in Bill Pohlad’s upcoming “Love & Money”—a film that will make a great complement to Tedesco’s.