Don’t expect to get concrete answers from The Wrecking Crew, a documentary that profiles the loosely defined collective of ’60s session musicians of the same name. Even when a small group of them are huddled around drinks to reminisce, the players themselves can’t remember exactly who played on what, who all was in their clique, or how everything happened. And they don’t need to. As the film shows, part of the joy of being in The Wrecking Crew was the lack of regiment. You showed up, you smoked, you drank, and you played your ass off under the direction of Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, or another genius whose vision you were being called upon to help realize. If they wanted you to switch instruments, so be it. If they wanted over 30 takes to get a cavernous, “exhausted” sound — as Spector had the players do more than once — well, alright. Wilson wants you to wear a fireman hat while recording the “Fire” portion of his Elements suite for SMiLE (aka “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”)? Bring it on, Brian.
It’s that keen sense of adaptability that separates The Wrecking Crew from many other rock documentaries. Where Let It Be, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and, of course, Some Kind of Monster are fraught with tension, fraying power dynamics, and general inner-band turmoil, The Crew focuses on almost none of this because they weren’t an actual band. While this results in some lower stakes (the closest thing we get to the rock-doc downward spiral is drummer Hal Blaine’s first divorce), it also makes for a film that’s just plain fun to watch, especially when meeting the various colorful personalities within The Crew.
Several of them we already know from their solo careers (most notably Leon Russell and Glen Campbell), but jazz/bebop great Tommy Tedesco (whose guitar can be heard in countless films and themes to ’60s TV shows) and bassist Carol Kaye? Not so much. As one of the only female session musicians to find any kind of success in the ’60s, Kaye is a particularly striking figure — laid-back and respected by her male contemporaries because she can play circles around just about any of them. When, well into her 70s, she breaks down the alternating high/low bass line of “Good Vibrations” for the camera, it’s a thing of beauty, a true humanization of Wilson’s often impenetrable magic.
Another part of the film’s nostalgic watchability comes from how lovingly it was created. Assembled from 1996 to 2008 by Tedesco’s son Denny, it glides along with nifty retro graphics breaking up the conversations with The Crew and many of the luminaries they worked with. Wilson, terse as he can be in his more recent interviews, showers the instrumentalists with articulate praise, and a pre-stroke Dick Clark (not a musician, but an indispensable part of music history in his own right) astutely notes how The Wrecking Crew got later bands to think about a more elaborate approach to rock ‘n’ roll.
Since it didn’t get theatrical distribution until just last month, many of these legends have passed on since work on the film began, including Clark and Tedesco, who gets an affectionate (but never heavy-handed) eulogy from his son at the end of the film. And yet even these more somber moments don’t poison the documentary with any kind of melancholia. That’s because The Wrecking Crew isn’t about something falling apart, but a specific moment in time: a time that, as a viewer, you keep wanting to revisit.