The Wrecking Crew

Denny Tedesco—whose father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, was one of the greatest session musicians of the rock era—started working on his documentary The Wrecking Crew shortly after his dad was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, but it didn’t premiere until 12 years later, at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Another seven years elapsed before Denny could raise enough money to license the dozens of hit records excerpted in the movie, by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina Turner, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The Wrecking Crew tells one of the great untold stories of 60s pop, profiling not only Tommy Tedesco but other session players who helped define the west-coast sound (including drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Glen Campbell, pianist Leon Russell, and saxophonist Plas Johnson). Many of the interviewees have since died, taking their memories with them.

So why does the movie feel like a missed opportunity? Partly because Denny, intent on celebrating his subjects, shies away from anything resembling a tough question (interviewing Brian Wilson, he asks the revered musician where he was the first time he heard the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” cueing an anecdote Wilson has told approximately 5,000 times). Partly because The Wrecking Crew sticks closely to the crowd-pleasing nostalgia of previous documentaries about unheralded rock musicians (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the studio band that made Berry Gordy rich; 20 Feet From Stardom, about the anonymous singers who backed up Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, and other legends). And partly—I would say primarily—because Tedesco, eschewing a chronological narrative in favor of numerous tangents and thumbnail portraits, can portray only in the broadest of strokes the musical trends that brought his players to prominence and, later, pushed them aside.

That said, you can’t spend 12 years accumulating footage for a documentary (and Tedesco accumulated plenty) without running across a few great nuggets. The Wrecking Crew is most valuable when the musicians recall the grueling workdays, strained family relations, handsome paychecks, and cutthroat competition to stay on top; or when the movie stops long enough for them to consider the idiosyncrasies of various producers (principally Wilson and Phil Spector). As Tedesco notes in the documentary, so many session players passed through this musical community that piecing together a definitive story is impossible—as he was reminded when Kaye distanced herself from The Wrecking Crew, complaining that it was really “The Hal Blaine Story” and that key players had been overlooked. Capturing some of that friction onscreen would have improved the movie, but exposing people is always a challenge, especially when they were always paid to be invisible.  v