Though very few know their names, everyone knows their music. Named The Wrecking Crew, they include a horde of tightly-knit Los Angeles-based studio musicians from the 1960s who, in various configurations, played on dozens of hit songs during that formative decade. Among the roster of artists for which The Wrecking Crew provided the background guitar, bass, drums, piano, saxophone and other instruments were The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Mamas and The Papas, The Tijuana Brass and Phil Spector‘s seminal Wall of Sound groups.
Now, Denny Tedesco, himself a longtime Hollywood set decorator and grip, is telling the story of The Wrecking Crew in a new eponymous documentary. For Tedesco, the story was particularly personal as his father was a key member of The Wrecking Crew’s stable of musicians. “I started this project in 1995 when my father, Tommy Tedesco was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” he said of the guitarist. “It was a way of me dealing with what was going in our lives and at the same time wanting to let the world know about what impact he and his friends made in musical history.”
Given that the material centers on the mid-1960s, Tedesco’s endeavors involved rummaging through photo, film and musical archives now 50 years old. “When I started, it was only 30 years old,” he explained. “We found a bunch of photos from [drummer] Hal Blaine. It took many years to find stock footage. It was more about getting the interviews first. Then, we could starting putting it together.”
Since many of the musicians worked with his father, Tedesco’s plight was drastically simplified. “The musicians themselves weren’t that hard,” he revealed, noting that many lived in his Los Angeles base. “Some lived in Nashville; some were in Washington State. You hope that you can get past the gatekeepers – agents and managers. They do a pretty good job at it. If you can get through, they will most likely say, ‘Yes.’ If I could ask the agent who would ask Cher, I knew we had a chance. We did — she loved them [the Wrecking Crew musicians].”
Given that the vast majority of The Wrecking Crew’s hits were recorded in the 1960s, Tedesco knew that his film would largely focus on that period of music. “We had to have all of the music rights before anyone would touch us,” he stated. “We had help from people around the country through donations, Kickstarter, Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert [the latter two of whom founded A&M Records]. The music companies were not the problem. They were very giving.”
Nevertheless, music rights for a film, especially a documentary, can be prohibitively expensive, and for The Wrecking Crew, Tedesco needed wall-to-wall classic songs.
“There was so much music, it was at a level that was unaffordable with 110 songs,” he related. “We had to raise over $700,000. We had to license stock footage, photos, and the musicians’ union to pay $200,000. I’m still paying for stuff.”
Despite ideas from potential producers for how to work around having 110 songs in the film, Tedesco stood his ground, insisting that including the songs was necessary to tell the musicians’ story. “Every song has these guys in it,” he noted. “Every song in that film comes from AFM [American Federation of Musicians] contracts. Other people would say, ‘Knock off a few songs; bring it down to 20 songs.’ Frank Sinatra, and The Byrds, and the Mamas and Papas, and The Fifth Dimension all had a different thing going on. This was a town that was a factory, knocking stuff out.”
Regarding an intimately personal project created with independent financing, including his own property, for Tedesco, the most surprising aspect of making the film was the amount support he received from virtual strangers. “I can take family and friends on this journey for so long before they tune out,” he revealed. “Strangers would remark how much it meant to them. ‘A friend of mine is dying – is there any way I could show him the film?’ That, to me, was a thrill. These folks have been with me since the early 2000s. Once I started showing early versions of the film publicly in 2008, we had a fanbase that grew.”
Though his film deals with a half-century-old material, Tedesco confessed one advantage his film represents in the contemporary marketplace. “50% of the story is known before you get to the theater – the music,” he said, “showing folks that my father and these folks made a living playing their instruments, and they take us on a musical journey. They were excellent musicians who could communicate with each other. They’re not always playing together every day. 15-20 players played together every day. They were coming out of rhythm-and-blues, and also jazz musicians who could improv. You are getting all of these great players coming together playing off each other, but also listening to each other. They had to nail it in the first few takes. They had to do three songs in three hours.”
Looking back on The Wrecking Crew, Tedesco believes that they have fully maintained their relevancy in today’s musical world. “You could hate everything that they ever did, but you can’t say that you weren’t influenced by them,” he detailed of today’s crop of musical artists. “Rock and roll was new. That stuff comes in and you don’t know how important it was at the time. You need to know what came before. You have to put your heart and soul into it.”
The Wrecking Crew opens on March 13 on VOD and iTunes plus at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana, Calif., and IFC Center 5 in New York. It will expand to 70 theaters over the next two months in other cities.