You may not know their names, but you know the songs and records they played on. If you ever heard tracks by Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, Herb Alpert, or John Denver, then you’ve experienced the seamless, note perfect, inventive, and sometimes show-stopping performances of The Wrecking Crew. They were the Los Angeles based backing band that almost everyone of note used in the ’60s. They pretty much were The Association on their albums, and the same goes for The Monkees. Brian Wilson and Phil Spector knew the skill level of the players and in their heydey wouldn’t use anyone else. Pet Sounds was a hybrid of Wilson’s feverish imagination that was able to tap the unlimited potential of The Wrecking Crew, who made his arrangements come to life, while the group also helped Spector achieve his famous Wall Of Sound. There are a thousand stories to be told in the studios where these session players cut some of the greatest records of all time, which makes it disappointing that there isn’t more to be found in the documentary “The Wrecking Crew.”
To be fair, that the film got finished at all is a testament to the distance director Denny Tedesco was willing to go. He first started the project in 1995, and it wasn’t until all the way in 2008 when the movie was finally screened at festivals around the world. And then it took over seven years for rights issues and music clearances for the documentary’s one hundred plus songs to get sorted out so the film could be released theatrically. Those are a lot of hurdles that would wear down anyone else. But Tedesco had another reason to ensure the movie was completed — it’s a tribute to his father, the late Wrecking Crew member, Tommy Tedesco, and it was started after the guitar player was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s an admirable gesture, but one can feel the long path it took for the movie to get made, coupled with the kind of flaws you’d find in a first feature-length documentary.
The main issue with “The Wrecking Crew” is its lack of focus. Granted, it’s not entirely Tedesco’s fault since the membership of the unofficial group was sprawling and could change session to session, not to mention they played on thousands of albums. Most agree on the faces that were the most frequent and sought after in the studio, but the documentary isn’t clear if it it’s going to be about the players or the styles they helped popularize, and settles on an uneven blend of both, separated by chapters, with intermittent and largely ineffectual voiceover peppered throughout. The picture veers between personal profiles of individual players, broad overviews of the records they worked on, and their remarkable adaptability to go from cutting an album with an artist in a single day, or hustling to half dozen gigs around town just to make ends meet. There is no doubt that Tedesco definitely makes you appreciate the incredible, jaw dropping skill of these players who lived to play music, but in doing so, “The Wrecking Crew” leans far too heavily on the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
Unlike “Muscle Shoals,” the excellent documentary about The Swampers, the go-to backing band for soul artists, there is no real conflict or deeper investigation in “The Wrecking Crew.” Sure, there is some grousing about perhaps not getting paid what they should have or proper attribution on LPs, but for the most part, everyone looks back on those halcyon days fondly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but combined with the messy structure, it can make for repetitive viewing (an issue that isn’t helped by the reuse of the some stock and press images in different parts of the film), and Tedesco likely isn’t experienced enough to try and find different avenues to explore to add some narrative layers of interest. What were the records they worked on that they thought should’ve got more due? Were they any they were surprised to see turn into hits? Were there any artists who didn’t appreciate their talents? Lines of inquiry like that would’ve great opened up the movie, but aren’t pursued here, and Tedesco might’ve been wise to drop the very dated references to Milli Vanilli that are left in the documentary.
These issues aside, any music fan will still want to give “The Wrecking Crew” a whirl because the contributors still tell great yarns. Glen Campbell lights up the screen (and there is an extra note of sadness given his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s), while someone should sit down and make an entire movie about Carol Kaye. Easily the brightest light of the entire documentary, she was the lone woman of the group, but one of its most talented players hands down. From writing the opening to Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” to playing the iconic theme to “Mission: Impossible” and so much more, even watching her play bass and guitar decades on, the level of skill is astonishing and inspiring. Her warmth at the memories and continued enthusiasm for her work is palpable. Meanwhile, the somewhat tragic tale of drummer Hal Blaine also adds some poignant notes. These are all highlights in a cinematic arrangement that could’ve definitely used a more experienced hand to enrich the whole thing, but if this is the only way we can get The Wrecking Crew in one place, talking about their experiences, it’ll do just fine. [B-]