Directed by Danny Tedesco
Produced by Lunch Box Entertainment
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures
The Wrecking Crew pays homage to one of the greatest hit machines that ever existed— “machine” being the operative word. These men (and one woman, bassist Carol Kaye) could more accurately have been dubbed the Assembly Line. They went on to perform on most of the major recordings to come out of Los Angeles from the early 1960s through late 1970s. In fact, from a musician’s standpoint, one would say they had the town “sewn up.”
Who exactly were the members of the famed musical Wrecking Crew? There is no clear-cut answer to this question. This shifting cast of Los Angeles session musicians got its name from jealous, jazz-oriented players of an earlier era—doing mostly lyrical, big-band-style music—who said this younger crew “was gonna wreck the business.” [End Page 78]
A list of hits these players worked on would read like a two-decade “Greatest Hits” compilation. However, one aspect the film deals with in a very superficial manner is that an inordinately high percentage of their output consisted of cheesy, ultra-commercial schlock. Some of the musicians profiled in the film clearly recognize this: Drummer Hal Blaine admits he was mostly doing it for the money—and he made millions, which he squandered. Drummer Earl Palmer Jr. says he didn’t want his name listed on the album covers because he didn’t want to be associated with this material. Keyboardist Leon Russell recalls saying to himself, “Oh my God; I hate this shit,” when he played on Gary Lewis’s recordings.
Writer Jim Webb, despite being an admirer, perhaps unwittingly characterizes these players as mercenaries, willing to do almost anything for a buck, when he describes them as cogs in the “star-maker machinery” or as “teams of hit men.” The fact that these were excellent musicians who would stoop to playing a lot of horrid music was what kept them in demand: producers and record execs didn’t need to worry about getting into arguments with musical purists. So on the rare occasion they got to make some really good, high-quality music with integrity—like Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds—they were elated.
What is striking about this story—a point touched on by Webb—is that this was all part of the industrial aspect of the music business: the ability of producers and manufacturers make the most efficient use of musicians and songwriters while churning out standardized, predicable products to shove into the distribution pipeline.
Berry Gordy of Detroit’s Motown Records had had the same idea years earlier, an idea, he said in his book To Be Loved, that he had gotten from the Ford and GM assembly lines that churned out hundreds of automobiles a day. It wasn’t difficult, Gordy explained, to transfer the ideas of standardization and interchangeable parts from auto manufacturing to music.
The L.A.-based record labels, mostly owned by the major film studios, had long been accustomed to concepts of assembly-line-style mass production as well as imitation, and borrowed heavily from Motown. Joe Osborn’s sad attempt to replicate James Jamerson’s bass style on the Fifth Dimension’s “Let the Sunshine In” is exemplary of the L.A. oeuvre, which in this instance consisted of watered-down Motown.
Any mention of Motown in The Wrecking Crew is conspicuous in its absence, possibly because the idea for The Wrecking Crew is largely derived from the template created by Paul Justman, whose 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown was a tribute to the nameless musicians who worked in Gordy’s hit factory. What the L.A. scene was to Detroit, The Wrecking Crew is to Standing in the Shadows.
Director Denny Tedesco is much too close to this story—and the people, including his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco—to offer much critical insight into the phenomenon. The film is basically a love letter to these musicians, especially to his father, who died in 1997. It’s told entirely from the...