It has been argued that Denny Tedesco’s documentary The Wrecking Crew — concerning the story of perhaps the greatest group of session musicians rock music ever had — is uneven, old-fashioned and out of date, owing to the length of time it took to make it and get it to the screen (paying for the music rights took a Kickstarter campaign). The most important charge against it — that it’s out of date — seems curious, since the story of the Wrecking Crew has been over since the late 1970s and hasn’t changed with the passage of time. That it’s uneven is probably more the result of the fact that it’s really two movies at once — the story of the loosely defined group and an intimate portrait of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Considering the film was made by Denny Tedesco — Tommy’s son — that’s not surprising.
As far as The Wrecking Crew being old-fashioned, I have to admit that I don’t expect much in the way of style out of documentaries as a rule. When I encounter it, I’m pleasantly surprised, but I don’t expect it. The truth is that this looks like it was mostly shot with TV in mind. Most of the interview footage is in the old TV screen ratio, but it’s been given a kind of theatrical varnish with graphics and titles that spill over into the rest of the screen. I was conscious of it, but I didn’t mind it — any more than I was bothered by footage of dead people among those interviewed. (Maybe this last is partly the result of watching bits of interviews with dead folks used as promotional filler on TCM with a great deal of regularity.) And I don’t think most viewers will care either. What will grab them is the story the film tells — and the way that story rewrites some of our notions about popular music of the era.
Except for putting names — and faces — to the musicians, there’s no surprise that the Monkees were (at least at first) neither playing their own instruments, nor were they responsible for their sound. We knew that long before the group was a thing of history. Mickey Dolenz is quite upfront about the fact that he didn’t think of himself as a musician, but as an actor playing one in a fantasy show about the fantasy life of this imaginary band. Similarly, I don’t think anyone thought about people like Nancy Sinatra or even Sonny and Cher as musicians, but neither did we pay much attention to who actually was playing the music. It was not an era of copious credits. Surely, no one thought the Beatles (not really a part of this particular story) were playing the strings or horns on their later, more complex records, but apart from crediting Alan Civil as the horn player on “For No One” and George Martin with playing piano on “In My Life,” I can’t think of a single non-Beatle musician being listed on an album.
What surprises here is more the revelation that these musicians were who we heard playing for the Byrds and the Association — and more to the point, the degree to which they helped shape the sound of everything from Phil Spector’s famous (or infamous) “wall of sound” recordings to helping to realize Brian Wilson’s later, more ambitious Beach Boys works. How many of you know that bassist Carol Kaye was responsible for the bass line that made “The Beat Goes On” a hit for Sonny and Cher? The film is full of this kind of information — and more.
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the film is how so little of it has any bitterness on the part of the musicians. More often than not, the admiration is a two-way street (then-session-musicians Leon Russell and Glen Campbell have nothing but praise for Brian Wilson). But beyond that the Wrecking Crew seems mostly grateful to have been an integral part of a moment in musical history — and to have had the steady employment it provided. After all, how many musicians can assert, “At one time I was making more than the president of the United States”? Well, Carol Kaye can — and does. That they’re receiving credit now, however, is heartening all the same. Rated PG for language, thematic elements and smoking images.