It's been a long road from the recording studio to wide release for The Wrecking Crew!, Denny Tedesco's documentary about the A-list Los Angeles studio musicians who in the 1960s and '70s played on hits for everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys to the Monkees.
Tedesco focuses on a behind-the-scenes cadre that included drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye, saxophonist Plas Johnson, guitarist Glen Campbell - along with pianist Leon Russell, the only Wrecking Crew members to go on to wider fame - and the director's guitar-playing father, Tommy Tedesco.
The ad hoc group of 20 to 30 rotating players were given their nickname, according to Blaine, by a preceding generation of suit-and-tie-wearing studio players who feared that these young, jazz-trained upstarts would wreck the music business, in part because they didn't regard rock and roll as properly beneath them. Instead, the hardworking players embraced it.
Tedesco gives credit to the uncredited musicians who played on hit songs such as Sonny & Cher's "The Beat Goes On," the Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," the Association's "Windy," and the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" (and entire Pet Sounds album).
Not to mention ubiquitous television and movie music, from the Pink Panther Theme (Johnson's sax) and the theme from Mission: Impossible (Kaye's bass) to the TV music for Batman, Bonanza, and Green Acres (Tommy Tedesco's guitar).
"I damn sure made more money playing rock and roll than playing jazz," Palmer says in the film.
The Wrecking Crew! (also the subject of Kent Harman's 2013 book, The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best Kept Secret) is a tale in the vein of such docs as Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) and Twenty Feet From Stardom (2013). The former chronicles the unheralded and underpaid players who toiled on Berry Gordy's musical assembly line in Detroit; the latter shines a light on the female backup singers shunted to the side of the stage while famous front men got all the glory.
The Wrecking Crew! doesn't have quite the weight of those two stories in terms of justice finally being served. The L.A. studio players were highly paid. Kaye, whom Brian Wilson refers to as "the greatest bass player in the world," remembers one year when "I made more money than the president of the United States." And by working three or four sessions a day, the musicians were largely spared the rigors of life on the road.
You can't accuse The Wrecking Crew! of ripping off those other secret-history music docs, though. Denny Tedesco began work on the movie in 1995 when his father, who died two years later, was ailing with cancer. The movie was first shown at film festivals in 2008. It had its Philadelphia premier at the XPN Music Film Festival in 2012. But it was not commercially released due to the prohibitive cost of securing the rights for the endless stream of hits in the movie.
Tedesco prevailed, in part through a Kickstarter campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay royalties to musicians in the movie.
The delay, in fact, has given The Wrecking Crew! an added poignancy. It not only works as an emotional remembrance of the elder Tedesco, but of others who have since died, including Palmer, pianist Al DeLory, and interview subject Dick Clark. And in it, Glen Campbell shows no signs of the Alzheimer's disease that has forced his retirement from music and that is chronicled in the 2014 documentary, I'll Be Me.
The Wrecking Crew! *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Denny Tedesco. With Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kaye, Brian Wilson, Hal Blaine, Plas Johnson. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText