Tommy Tedesco. Hal Blaine. Plas Johnson. Carol Kaye. Earl Palmer. If those names immediately ring a bell, then you have a very deep knowledge of recorded music. Collectively, they are four members of a larger ensemble of 1960s West Coast studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. They provided some of the most memorable melodies, rhythms and solos ever recorded for artists like Sam Cooke, Sonny & Cher, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Mamas & the Papas and countless others. At one point, The Wrecking Crew had performed on seven consecutive Grammy winners for Record of the Year. They were the unknown titans of the music industry before the age of the virtuoso bands (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Santana) left them looking for work.
The Wrecking Crew, the film, is a fascinating look behind the curtain at the West Coast hit-manufacturing machine that emerged when so many of the good-looking, clean-cut artists of the 1960s discovered that they couldn’t play their instruments with enough consistency to record an actual album. During an interview with drummer Earl Palmer, he discusses how the The Wrecking Crew was such a tight studio band that they could easily record an entire side of an album in a single afternoon. And in the 1960s, musicians like that were worth their weight in gold. Studio time was expensive, and a group like The Wrecking Crew could crank out hit records by the dozens.
Brian Wilson, the genius composer and creative control freak, even called on The Wrecking Crew to record the music tracks for the legendary Beach Boys’ album, Pet Sounds. Wilson’s sonic vision exceeded what the individual members of the Beach Boys were capable of playing, so he called on these studio pros to produce the psychedelic sounds that ultimately helped define an era. Paul McCartney himself acknowledges that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was The Beatles attempt to further the experimentation of Pet Sounds.
This documentary is the brain child of Denny Tedesco, the son of guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco. When his father passed away, Denny noticed that all of the obituaries and news features focused on his father being the musician that everyone had heard innumerable times, but you didn’t know who he was. So Denny decided to turn a camera on the surviving members of The Wrecking Crew and highlight their significant (and often completely uncredited) contributions to the world of popular music. The resulting film is akin to Muscle Shoals (2013), but rather than being the story of a studio that generated a signature sound, The Wrecking Crew focuses on the group of musicians who could play any style or genre with the precision and feel needed to make an entire nation listen to the results.
In an era where computers and samples comprise so much of popular music, it’s enlightening to see the material rewards reaped by the best of the best studio musicians. Hal Blaine (who in addition to his Wrecking Crew gig also toured with Elvis, John Denver and others) had multiple homes, a yacht, a Rolls Royce and other luxuries. Some of the Wrecking Crew members were on retainer to make themselves available to certain artists or record labels. They received a paycheck whether they performed or not. They were the very definition of “first call” musicians. It was a time when actual talent was still a commodity.
If you are a musician or deep music fan, The Wrecking Crew is a must-see documentary. Listening to the musicians discuss the creation of the seminal hits of the 1960s is a fascinating journey. The mixture of talent and luck that defines every successful creative endeavor is explored in detail. The recent footage with the individual members recreating their iconic riffs and grooves and then discussing how those melodies and rhythms came into being are alone worth the price of admission. The visual style of The Wrecking Crew can become repetitive over its 100-minute running time. Talking head interviews are broken up by frequent montages of still photos from recording sessions. But the sameness of its visual approach is overridden by the rich vein of music lore it reveals. I have avoided mentioning most of the anecdotes, trivia and music history presented in the film, so that you can experience it for yourself. And you should.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.