The unsung heroes of rock ’n’ roll can get their due if documentary filmmakers have anything to say about it. Recent films have shed light on background singers (20 Feet From Stardom) and brilliant, influential bands that didn’t find recognition in their own time (Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me). The Wrecking Crew tells the story of a large group of supremely talented Los Angeles studio musicians who directly shaped the sounds of their era but have remained largely anonymous, even to aficionados of 1960s rock ’n’ roll and pop.
The list of songs on which the Wrecking Crew plied its magic includes The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls”; Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Mrs. Robinson”; “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and The Papas; “’You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers (the all-time most-played record on American radio); The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (along with the rest of producer Phil Spector’s entire “wall of sound” catalog); and Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” (and everything else attributed to The Tijuana Brass). That’s just for starters.
These credits are a testament to the musicians‘ range and creativity. They often had nothing but a simple lead sheet to work from and frequently delivered timeless signature sounds. This was a time when record companies and producers often had more control than artists did over the content of finished recordings. The Crew was happy to work anonymously around the clock and be well-paid for its services.
The Wrecking Crew came about when guitarist Tommy Tedesco was diagnosed with terminal cancer and his son, TV producer Denny Tedesco, wanted to tell not only his father’s story but also that of his father’s colleagues in the Crew. Denny began shooting in 1996 and created a film that won awards at festivals in 2008, but he couldn’t distribute it commercially because the rights to the music in the film were too expensive. A recent Kickstarter campaign solved the problem.
The finished work cobbles together a variety of film and video formats and suffers from modest production values. Additionally, the director’s earnest personal statements about his father sometimes seem out of place, but the story he has to tell is so compelling and overdue that it’s easy to accept the film’s shortcomings.
The Wrecking Crew was a loose conglomeration of about 20 musicians who knew each other well and played together daily in one configuration or another. The film relies on the participation of a core group that includes Tommy Tedesco, bass player Carol Kaye (the Crew’s only woman), drummer Hal Blaine and two legendary musicians from New Orleans: saxophone player Plas Johnson and drummer Earl Palmer. (Mac Rebennack, AKA Dr. John, also was a member but was not interviewed for the film.) Because he started shooting the film long before he had the means to finish it, Denny was able to include interviews with many musicians who have since died.
One especially revealing section focuses on The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, the rare artist who usually told the Crew precisely what he wanted them to play. The Crew’s reverence for Wilson’s genius harks back to their own previously unheralded status as artists. But we also learn that Wilson conducted a series of 25 recording sessions with these musicians over three or four months, openly soliciting their help to realize the three and a half-minute masterpiece that is “Good Vibrations.” It’s amazing what artists of all types can achieve when they’re willing to set ego aside.
The Wrecking Crew begins an exclusive run today, March 27, at the Prytania Theatre. More info here.