As a music reviewer who goes to lots of shows and listens to lots of records, it’s hard not to notice that there’s often a huge discrepancy in what you hear live and what comes through your radio or headphones. There are, of course, numerous reasons for this (more time in the studio to get the sound right, use of highly-paid studio professionals, etc…) but often it’s because you could be hearing two separate groups of musicians. The studio players are often the more-skilled but rarely get the credit, so a film like The Wrecking Crew exists to retroactively ensure those musicians get recognized for their contributions.
“The Wrecking Crew” was a group of studio musicians in Los Angeles during the 1960s that played on many of the most well-known recordings to come out of that era. No one is really sure how many members there actually were (and the name was given to them after the fact – so there was no one saying “get me the Wrecking Crew”), but somewhere between a dozen and about 30 or 40.
Filmmaker and narrator Denny Tedesco was the son of one of those musicians. His father Tommy was one of the most well-known studio guitarists of the time. Of course this documentary romanticizes those musicians (and rightfully so) but it also provides an interesting look into their world and helps piece together the process for making hit songs.
Although there are interviews with stars like Cher, Brian Wilson and Nancy Sinatra, the most fun parts of this doc to watch are the scenes where a camera let four of those studio musicians sit at a table (it looked like a poker table with the close proximities) and let them tell their stories. Tommy Tedesco was joined by bassist Carol Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine and saxophonist Plas Johnson. Their stories set the narrative for the film and were sometimes funny sometimes heartbreaking (especially hearing Blaine discussing his post-divorce life). This took place in 1996 (Tommy Tedesco died in 1997). Kaye’s solo interview is often illuminating because she was holding her Fender bass during the interview and illustrated some of her signature basslines while the camera focused on her hands.
It was only a 95 minute doc, so the pop music nerd in me could have listened to those stories for hours and hours without growing tired, but the film did a good job of balancing the wonk stuff with telling their stories as accessibly as they could.
Tommy Tedesco, unsurprisingly – it is his son’s movie, comes across looking the best. He is seen as being funny and gracious and not showing any bitterness towards the people who were credited with the parts he actually played. When one touring musician told him that he felt guilty when was complimented by fans for parts that Tedesco actually played, he just told him to take the compliment and say thanks. He explained that it cuts both ways. If someone paid him their last $25 for his guitar parts on a record that flopped, he wasn’t going to give the money back. He is considered to be the most widely-recorded guitarist ever, playing on over a thousand different tracks.
The film ends anti-climactically. Studio musicians, even ones as skilled as the “Wrecking Crew” were, become less and less in-demand as music fans begin demanding that the same people they hear on records are the same people they see on stage while artists like Jimmie Page and Pete Townshend could do both and do it well. There are no real villains in this film and Denny Tedesco is very aware that the good times for studio musicians like his father couldn’t last forever. The film works so well because the subjects are both humble and fully aware of their skill. They were not exploited or hold any real bitterness (at least that is apparent in the film). The Wrecking Crew succeeds because it lets these musicians who are largely unknown by name tell their stories in their own words and lets them take the credit they deserve.