Denny Tedesco’s The Wrecking Crew plays like an extended episode of Behind the Music covering the most popular American rock and pop music of the 1960s, minus the sex and drugs. The core of the documentary is an overly reverential look at the director’s father, Tommy Tedesco, an important session musician in American music from the ’60s to the 1980s. Tommy was the unofficial leader of the eponymous crew, a loose ensemble of studio musicians that consisted of somewhere between 10 and 30 members, according to differing estimates from the group’s survivors. While acts like the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, the Byrds, and the Mamas & the Papas appeared on album covers and inside liner notes, it was the Wrecking Crew that actually laid down the instrumentals on their albums. These unheralded musicians expanded on the sheet music handed to them in the recording studios to create some of the most famous riffs, licks, and beats of the era. They were the difference between the notes on the page and the sound on the record.
The film chronicles the vast migration of young musicians from New York to Los Angeles in the early ’60s, and the Wrecking Crew, whose work encompassed a veritable greatest hits of the decade, emerged as the most reliable microcosm of this massive influx. They played on the records that featured Phil Spector’s patented wall of sound, which the super-producer created by using four times the normal amount of session players in a ceramic echo chamber. Brian Wilson used them on Pet Sounds, with Tommy often even playing Wilson’s instrumental parts. It’s such revelations that elevate the film from a mere celebration of these unsung musicians to a meaningful exposé of the lies that underpin American pop music. (And it was the difficulties in acquiring the rights to these massive hits, so that they could be sampled here, that’s delayed the film’s release for close to seven years.)
Like a broken record, members of the Wrecking Crew and those who worked with them constantly repeat how they were the most sought-after studio musicians in Los Angeles. They rarely loved the music they were paid to play, but it made them fabulously wealthy. These coveted musicians could never turn down gigs, as that might jeopardize their elite status, especially with so many hungry and talented musicians waiting in the wings to take their places. But these struggles, the only drama in the film, are limited to a brief coda in its final minutes. Overall, the documentary comes off as a solipsistic, uncritical look at an incredible moment in the history of American music. The director’s intent is to valorize these musicians, whose fame never equaled their enormous paychecks, while evoking nostalgia in the generation of viewers that grew up with this music.
The filmmakers make a halfhearted attempt at spicing up the visuals by splicing in a few performance clips and soundbites from the era’s marquee names (like Brian Wilson, Dick Clark, and Cher), but such efforts don’t do enough to enliven what’s essentially an extended group interview with the ensemble’s surviving members. What the film does reveal is that pop music has always been a simulacrum in the age of mass culture, a phenomenon that’s not just a product of MTV and music videos. Though the image may be paramount in our society of the spectacle, it’s nevertheless the concealed labor provided by the likes of the Wrecking Crew that’s ultimately responsible for our collective pleasure.