The unsung heroes who played on stacks of wax during the '60s pop era are celebrated in a hugely entertaining documentary.
Seven years after its premiere gigs at the 2008 SXSW and Nashville film festivals (when it was originally reviewed by Variety), “The Wrecking Crew” finally has a fair chance to chart on theatrical and VOD turntables. Slightly expanded with a handful of new interviews, not unlike an extra-added-tracks CD edition of a classic LP, this nostalgia-drenched rockumentary remains a hugely entertaining treasure trove of witness-at-creation anecdotes and enduringly potent ’60s pop hits.
Stuffed with samplings of golden oldies, the movie is a well-nigh irresistible treat for auds old enough to recall the era when acts like the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Association, Nancy Sinatra and the Monkees loomed large on AM radio-station playlists. But even younger folks more attuned to streaming their favorite music may be fascinated by director Denny Tedesco’s examination and celebration of the title subjects, a loose-knit group of largely unknown (except by industry insiders) session musicians, many of whom supplied the defining licks and backbeats — and, in some cases, actually played instruments for band members — on legendary recordings.
Tedesco began work on the project shortly before the 1997 death of his father, Tommy Tedesco, one of two dozen or so exceptionally versatile session musicians known collectively during their mid-century heyday as the Wrecking Crew. Most of these unsung heroes of the ‘60s L.A. music scene had jazz or classical backgrounds before they started playing for rock, pop and R&B artists. (A few, the movie pointedly notes, made the transition only with extreme reluctance.) And all of them, judging from the testimonies of the elder Tedesco and other interviewees, had the time of their lives while enjoying steady employment and, occasionally, making musical history.
“They were the ones with all the spirit and all the know-how,” recalls an admiring Brian Wilson, who admits using Wrecking Crew members instead of fellow Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations” and other key recordings. Phil Spector used them to create his much-vaunted “Wall of Sound,” and Herb Albert employed what he calls the “established groove machine” to establish the trademark sound of his Tijuana Brass. And a few instrumental hits (including the chart-topping “Surfer’s Stomp”) credited to acts who were pictured on album covers — and eventually sent out to perform on tour — actually were recorded by uncredited Wrecking Crew artists.
Bassist Carol Kaye, the only female in the group, emerges as the most entertaining of the Wrecking Crew vets in terms of animated storytelling, whether she’s remembering her initial reaction to Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” — “Oh-oh! We need to pull a rabbit out of a hat on this one!” — or proudly reporting that, when she was at the top of her game, she made more money than the U.S. president. (Please: Someone get this lady her own biopic, ASAP.)
On the other hand: Former Monkee Peter Tork still sounds slightly miffed as he recalls being more or less shuttled aside by the Wrecking Crew pros during the recording of early Monkee albums — because, as even Tork admits, he and his three “bandmates” did not yet know how to play their instruments. Wilson says he didn’t encounter quite so much resentment when he used the Wrecking Crew for recording much of “Pet Sounds” and “Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)” The other Beach Boys conceded, albeit grudgingly, that Wilson was right: The Wrecking Crew sounded better than they did.
Tork and Leon Russell are two of the new interviewees who have been added to the mix during the lengthy stretch since “The Wrecking Crew” first screened at SXSW and Nashville. The documentary’s release date reportedly was delayed while Denny Tedesco and his producers conducted negotiations, and raised additional funds, to nail down music rights. Not surprisingly, the passage of time has added an element of poignancy to the colorful recollections of Tommy Tedesco and other Wreckers who are now deceased — and to stories spun by the late Dick Clark, who was interviewed before his debilitating stroke.
It is especially affecting to hear and see clips of an interview with Glen Campbell, a Wrecking Crew regular who played for everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Mamas and Papas, and eventually toured with the Beach Boys — as a temporary replacement for Wilson! — before his solo stardom. The Rhinestone Cowboy sounds hale and hearty during most of his time on screen. But there is a fleeting moment when he pauses, visibly strains to recall a detail, and then casually admits, “I forget what it was.” And that moment is all it takes to remind a viewer that the Campbell of today is a man tragically incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease. There are more than a few similarly melancholy moments throughout “The Wrecking Crew,” moments that emphasize that the past so joyfully celebrated here is — well, past. But the beat goes on.
Archival footage, still photos and interviews shot in various formats over several years are neatly assembled in a technically polished package.