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August 28, 2008


by Bruce Braunstein
edited by Don Rose

I had the privilege of seeing a great documentary -- The Wrecking Crew -- playing as part of DocuWeek at the Arclight in Hollywood. DocuWeek is not a film festival. It is a project by the IDA (http://www.documentary.org/) to help films qualify for Academy Award consideration. A documentary has to play for a week in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for the Oscars.
Docuweek: The Wrecking Crew
The Wrecking Crew tells the story of the musicians behind the hits. It turns out this small group of musicians played on all the big hits from LA in the 60s. It's amazing -- they play music for artists like the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Frank Sinatra, the Chipmunks, the Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. You name it -- they did it.

A musician like Herb Alpert would come in with a lead sheet; the studio musicians would take the simple set of chords and turn it into a hit. Songs like A Taste of Honey were recorded at little recording studios like Goldstar that were scattered throughout Hollywood. Producers like Phil Spector would use the same musicians over and over again to create the Wall of Sound.

Members of the crew included Carol Kaye, the only female. She could keep up with the best of them. She was known for her incredible bass lines and guitar riffs echo through the music of the 60s. Saxophonist Plass Johnson contributed a distinctive sound, and drummer Earl Palmer could do almost anything on percussion.

The emotional center of the film is the story of guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The film was put together by his son, Danny Tedesco, who took all the existing archival photographs, clips and interviews and, in the time before his father passed away, gathered together the members of the Wrecking Crew and shot them in 16mm film, in order to get their stories out. Composer Jimmy Webb said, "they were stone cold rock 'n roll professionals, and there may never ever be a group of rock 'n roll musicians of that caliber again..."

Everyone knows that the Monkees didn't play their own music at first. Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine has kept blocking the Monkees' entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because they didn't originally play their own instruments. (Lead singer Mickey Dolenz said that he viewed the Monkees as actors playing the part of musicians.) But what most people may not realize is that there are songs in which bands like the Association and the Beach Boys didn't play the music either. For example, the Wrecking Crew were the musicians that you heard on Good Vibrations.

The Wrecking Crew provided the sound on thousands of records, but nothing goes on forever. Eventually, styles changed and the crew wasn't in demand anymore. Singer-songwriters learned to play their own instruments and studio musicians weren't as needed as before. Fortunately, because of his musical ability and versatility, Tommy Tedesco was able to continue working as a studio musician, long after the demand for his work in rock and roll had dried up.

I loved this film. The music is great, featuring over 100 different songs (nearly all huge hits) from the 60's. Even though the extraordinary musicians featured in this documentary played the music on all these tunes, their names are not on the records. They worked anonymously, they got paid, and they didn't get credit. This film finally pays them the tribute they deserve. The movie deserves a wider release, since it is one of the most enjoyable films I've seen in a long time. Thanks to IDA and DocuWeek for enabling Angelenos to see such a fine film as The Wrecking Crew. You can get more information about the film and future screenings at http://www.wreckingcrew.tv/.


Jon said...

Howdy. I agree with you review--this film rocks! However, I must disagree with your statement the licensing would cost $5 Million. I work in that part of the biz, and the cost would be much lower. At one of the screenings I asked the producers what they thought it would cost, and they said they have the music publishers on board as well as musicians union, and the cost was much less.

If you want to help the film, please amend that comment in your review, because it could scare away a potential distributor. $5M is a lot of money for a documentary's licensing. I heard at the Q&A the fllm is seeking distribution and all of us who love this movie are trying to spread the word.