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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers The Wrecking Crew.
There are a lot of different narratives flowing through Denny Tedesco’s exhaustive dive into the Wrecking Crew. It simultaneously tells the story of pop music in the '60s and '70s, documents what it was like to be a musician for hire, and shows a son re/discovering aspects of his father. Shot over nearly two decades and on a variety of formats, it’s a pretty ragged patchwork in the longview, but the bits and pieces add up to much more than the sum of their parts when it’s all said and done.
You know, it’s still wild to think that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, far and away one of the greatest pop albums ever recorded, features hardly any of the Beach Boys on it past the vocal booth. Just about every other bit of it was performed by the loosely organized group of musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. No one can seem to agree on how many people were in the group at any one time, with estimations ranging from a dozen or so on up to forty or more (the wikipedia page lists dozens and dozens of members). In reality the Wrecking Crew were more LA studio musician royalty than a real gang; they just ending up consistently grouped together in a lot of the same recording sessions. All throughout the film there’s a wonderful humility to everyone on screen. To them, these were just jobs where they got a paycheck at the end of the day just like anyone else. “I went to work and I made hundreds of hits. But I made thousands of bombs. I never gave anybody their money back” guitarist Tommy Tedesco says at one point, and “hundreds of hits” might even be an under-valuation. The Wrecking Crew’s fingerprints can be found on everything from the Monkees, the Byrds, the Sinatras (Frank and Nancy), the theme songs to Green Acres, M*A*S*H, Batman... the list goes on and on with some members logging literally multiple thousands of sessions over the decades of their careers.
While their prolificness is important to the Wrecking Crew’s legacy (if exhausting to document), for me it was just as fascinating to get to spend some time with people who were so profoundly proficient at what they did and were able to knock out three or more sessions before dinner time or record whole albums in a day, starting off more often than not with just a chord chart to guide them. Grinding like that, which they all had to from session to session, takes a toll on your family life though, and there’s certainly some evidence of that here. “It was a pretty nice life. Then one day you come home at lunch and there’s a sheriff telling you ‘You can’t go in there, you’re being divorced,’ and they’re handing you papers,” Hal Blaine says at one point, and others have similar stories. One of the best diversions the film takes is with bassist Carol Kaye who digs into what it was like being the only woman in the group.
The filmmaker, Denny Tedesco, is (as you might have deduced) the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, which explains the incredible breadth of access we get, from Herb Alpert to Frank Zappa and all points in between. It also explains the perceptible chip that the film seems to have on its shoulder, wanting to correct the record (there’s a clip of Tommy’s name misspelled and mispronounced in a television obit) as much as as it wants to tell the historically fascinating stories of these unsung musicians and finally get them the recognition they deserve. The end result, after all the fits and starts that went into recording the footage, is a really worthwhile trip through a lesser known side of music history that doesn’t really exist anymore. If you dig the film, I recommend tracking down some of the podcast appearances Denny made during the promotion of the doc, since they fill in some of the gaps and tell the separate and almost equally fascinating story of how they managed to license all the songs for the film.
Next week we'll check out the Finding Fela which examines the controversial Afrobeat pioneer and political activist!
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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