Think of “The Wrecking Crew” as “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013) for instrumentalists, or a West Coast version of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (2002). There’s a similar shared joy among the participants, a similar sense of discovery for the viewer, and, of course, a killer soundtrack.
Denny Tedesco’s lively and loving documentary takes its title from the name collectively applied to the group of two to three dozen Los Angeles studio musicians who dominated rock and pop recordings there during the 1960s and early ’70s.
Although you probably don’t recognize the names of Hal Blaine or Earl Palmer, both drummers are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You almost certainly recognize many of the recordings they and their fellow musicians played on — hits by the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Tijuana Brass, the Byrds, the Association, Elvis Presley, Wayne Newton, Dean Martin, the Mamas and the Papas. The list goes on (and on).
These sidemen also provided the lath, studs, and plaster for Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Sidemen and sidewoman, that is: Carol Kaye has been called the most recorded bassist in history. That irresistible bass line on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On”? She came up with it. She also came up with the little bass figure that opens Glen Campbell’s recording of “Wichita Lineman.” He started out in the Wrecking Crew. Campbell was an ace session guitarist before someone noticed he could sing a bit, too.
You name it, and the Wrecking Crew played it, including commercials and movie and television work. Saxophonist Plas Johnson supplied the glorious skulk of the tenor saxophone solo on “The Pink Panther Theme.” The twangy guitar part on the “Bonanza” opening music came courtesy of Tommy Tedesco.
Tommy was Denny’s father, hence the family feeling that suffuses “The Wrecking Crew.” Some of the most enjoyable bits in this highly enjoyable film come when Blaine, Kaye, Johnson, and Tedesco senior sit around a table and talk about old times. It’s the conversational equivalent of a jam session. Numerous other Wrecking Crew players are heard from individually.
That four-way confab provides the movie with its spine. Denny Tedesco surrounds it with home movies his mother shot, populuxe graphics (very LA of that era, of course), and period photographs, as well as vintage video and audio of rehearsals, TV performances, and the occasional stage show. It’s a tie for most memorable footage (which isn’t the same as best) between Nancy Sinatra stomping her way through “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” on TV and Blaine’s solo while backing her up at Caesars Palace. If his drum kit were any bigger it would be in another ZIP code.
The Monkees’ Peter Tork, who admits that he resented not playing on the band’s recordings, concedes that it was the right decision: The Wrecking Crew players were so much more talented than he and his bandmates were. Monkees drummer Mickey Dolenz, looking quite spiffy in a white panama hat, agrees.
Tork and Dolenz are among the many talking heads singing the Wrecking Crew’s praises: Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Alpert, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson, Nancy Sinatra. Even Frank Zappa shows up. Kaye played on the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!” and “Absolutely Free” LPs.
Both Clark and Zappa are dead now, as are Earl Palmer, Tommy Tedesco, and several others in the Wrecking Crew. If the viewer gets a sense of time lag, there’s a reason. Denny Tedesco completed the documentary in 2008. He’s shown it at festivals since, but it’s otherwise been stuck in music-clearance limbo. Entertainment conglomerates weren’t willing to budge on royalties. Finally, Tedesco was able to work out reasonable licensing fees for the more than 100 songs heard in the documentary.
It’s worth staying through the final credits to see them all listed. It’s also worth sticking around to hear Blaine tell a pretty funny trombonist joke and see the final words that appear on screen: “No musicians were harmed in the making this film and no drum machines were ever used.” The beat really does go on.