Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Wrecking Crew Documentary: Netflix Movie Review

There’s a great moment in The Wrecking Crew  where several members of this legendary group of studio musicians, reunited decades after their heyday,  bring up the group Milli Vanilli (though the sexagernarians keep getting the name wrong). They chortle over the idea that good looking front people who don’t actually make the music constitute a “scandal” -- twas ever thus, say their insider smirks. They should know, under the aegis of record producers like Phil Spector and Lou Adler, they created most of the hit songs of the sixties--arguably creating the sound now known as rock and roll. These are the actual human beings who made up the famous "wall of sound."
As described in the film, the Wrecking Crew was a loose group of 20-30 musicians who, given a simple pop melody, could punch it up and make it a hit. While you might expect that such a film would be about the essentially plastic and interchangeable nature of commercial music (after all, how can the same group “be” Nat King Cole and the Byrds), it turns out to have a surprising warmth to it. This is probably partly because the film was made, over many years and much scrambling for funds, by the son of one of the crew, the guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Tommy Tedesco seems to have been a cutup as well as a virtuoso guitarist, and, at least as presented by his son Denny Tedesco, to have been part of the glue that held the group together.

The other thing, of course, was the enormous amounts of money they made working 18 hour days, producing mountains of hit material. It was only much later that they, and their families, bemoaned the fact that their names were seldom on the historic records they created--that honor went to the Association, the Monkeys, and the Fifth Dimension and other assorted Milli Vanillis.
The Association
Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye

One of the pleasant surprises of the film is that early rock and roll was actually much more integrated than those college boy album covers would have had us believe. It seems to have been a true meritocracy, with everyone more or less welcome as long as they were cool and could produce the work. It seems the ears of Americans were ready for more integration than their eyes could take in.
The backgrounds of the musicians add to our understanding of the music as well. Most came from diverse but deep musical backgrounds -- Carol Kaye had a mother who played piano in movie houses; Plas Johnson grew up in New Orleans with musician parents who found peak employment (one during the night and one by day) playing for the constant stream of soldiers in WWII. He became a saxophonist, first working at 12 on a Mardi Gras parade. Drummer Hal Blaine talks about how he achieved the focus and concentration he needed for endless studio session during his early as a drummer at strip clubs. Almost all of them came from jazz, and many cite that form of music, not rock and roll, as their original vocation.

The film comes as an important corrective for those interested in the history of pop music. Even after all these years, however,  this still feels like somewhat dangerous and disputed territory. The people most willing to talk on camera are give credit to these foundational players tend to be singers, like Nancy Sinatra and Cher, with little at stake in pretending they did it all themselves. Most generous, perhaps, is Brian Wilson, who talks about how utterly central Wrecking Crew were to the legendary Smile recordings. Of course that album went on to influence to course of pop music to come, inspiring The Beatles, among others, with the possibilities of the genre. (That Wilson simultaneously gets to note how little other official Beach Boys members had to do with the Beach Boy sound is a not-so incidental bonus.) Other groups featured prominently on the poster--Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas--are notably absent as commentators. It seems not everyone is quite ready to revise their own history as pop auteurs.

In spite of this willful effacement, however, the Wrecking Crew (both group and documentary) ends up making musicians look damn good. They  were undoubtedly shortchanged on the credit they deserved given that their improvisation, looseness and familiarity with each other elevated frequently  rote tunes and brought them to life. On the other hand, these were incredibly well-paid studio musicians. They ended up with mansions, rolls royces and yachts, and all while retaining their anonymity.The absence of the corrosive effect of fame, along with the built in impetus to get along (no one was irreplaceable), seems to have allowed the group to work together, over incredibly long hours, without any of the tantruming seemingly built in to supergroups. Furthermore,  the film was finally completed, and the complicated permissions for the 110 songs soundtrack procured, with funding from “music brass” Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.
For those of us still hopelessly in thrall to pop music a half a century later, The Wrecking Crew is essential viewing.

--Grace Lovelace


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