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The Wrecking Crew

The studio musicians of Los Angeles finally get their moment in the spotlight

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In film circles, Denny Tedesco's music documentary The Wrecking Crew has become a shorthand reference to the strained and bizarre state of the copyright regime in 2015. Tedesco first started making the film about Los Angeles studio musicians 19 years ago. Inspired by his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, he spent years arranging interviews, tracking down archival footage, and, teaching himself filmmaking in the true indie spirit. It premiered at the South By Southwest film festival in 2008 to wide acclaim and went on to be a hit on the festival circuit. Normally, a great subject, good execution, and a good festival run gives a documentary a good shot at distribution. But after more than a decade of struggle, Tedesco found himself facing two daunting challenges to getting his film out to the audience. First was the financial crash of 2008, which instantly dried up the traditional funding sources for small budget films in a way the industry has yet to fully recover from. Second was the astronomical cost of licensing the dozens of songs for the film from the media conglomerates that owned them. Since this was a music documentary, the songs were inseparable from the film, so Tedesco begged, pleaded, took out mortgages on his home, and watched all the buzz he had worked so hard to build up drown under a sea of red tape.

The Wrecking Crew in the studio
  • The Wrecking Crew in the studio

Now, seven years and a $300,000 Kickstarter campaign later, The Wrecking Crew can finally (legally) meet its audience. The story opens in the late 1950s. Lured by a growing talent pool and closer connections with the film and television industries, the center of the music industry started shifting from New York's Tin Pan Alley to the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles. At the same time, rock-and-roll was taking the country by storm, and many of the older musicians who had made their living playing on commercial jingles and anonymous teen idol ditties were not enthused by the new style. But a new generation of players, such as drummer Earl Palmer, who were mostly into bebop jazz, had no such compunctions. They earned the name "The Wrecking Crew" when one old timer complained that the rockers were going to "wreck the music business," but over time, their nickname came to symbolize their fearsome chops.

To earn a spot on the rotating crew, players had to have an almost inhuman ability to figure out what the often inarticulate clients wanted and to nail the songs instantly. Tedesco uncovers a group of fascinating characters. His father tells stories of bands that could dish out entire Disney soundtracks before lunch and then move on to moonlight as the Monkees in the afternoon. Drummer Hal Blaine played on seven tracks that won song of the year Grammys in consecutive years. Legendary bassist Carol Kaye not only wrote the iconic bassline for the Mission: Impossible theme, but was also mistress of the groove on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, all while raising two children. Phil Spector constructed his Wall of Sound in L.A's Gold Star studio using 15 members of the crew and then refused to use anyone else on recording sessions for years. They made careers, from Cher, who in the film remembers being a young, naive singer who idolized the crew, to Nancy Sinatra, who recalls talking her father Frank out of recording "These Boots Are Made for Walking" before sneaking into a studio with the crew and cutting the huge hit herself.

Carol Kaye and Bill Pitman
  • Carol Kaye and Bill Pitman

But despite their ubiquity on pop radio, few of these day-rate players were recognized for their work. As Dick Clark says in an interview, "Who created it? No one cared." The big exception was Glen Campbell, who was a session guitarist for years before striking out on his own and taking some of the crew with him as he rose to country music stardom.

Tedesco organizes the documentary around the personalities he encountered, which sometimes makes for a confusing chronology. But what the director lacks in technical chops and narrative clarity, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and heart, and that's what make The Wrecking Crew an exceptional documentary.


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