Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Any discussion of the great American songbook of the 1960s and early 70s ought to include mention of the highly prolific band of L.A. studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.  These musicians played on an incredible amount of hit records, arranging and adding embellishment to what became the defining sound of the time.  Most remarkable of all, The Wrecking Crew was an industry secret.  Their contributions were hidden from the public by the labels and their marketing teams, who (rightfully?) understood that the public wouldn't understand why the members of their favorite bands weren't actually playing on the majority of their records.

Director Denny Tedesco, son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, decided that it was high time for the public to be educated about what his father and his "extended family" had given the world.  Thus, The Wrecking Crew documentary was born.  It's a lively lesson on the history behind some of the best pop music of the 20th century, packed to the gills with incredible songs that were brought to life by a group of nearly anonymous players.  As a buddy of mine kept saying each time another famous song began to pour out of the television speakers: "holy sh*t, they're on that one, too!"

Tedesco is bringing The Wrecking Crew to Portland's Hollywood Theatre next Monday night.  He was kind enough to speak with me in advance of the screening.

NICK: With The Wrecking Crew, you’ve brought attention to some of the most influential yet, simultaneously, obscure musicians of the rock ‘n’ roll era. These players were kind of hidden in plain sight from the music buying public. But I imagine, growing up as the son of studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco, you probably had a much different experience from the general public when it came to knowing about the culture of studio musicians who played on all these classic albums. 

Their anonymity is really driven home in the film when an industry insider like Dick Clark admits that he, too, was surprised to find out about the Wrecking Crew’s significant contribution to many of the biggest hits of the 60s and early 70s. 

Was there a definitive moment when you came to realize that most people were not clued in to the role played by your father and his colleagues, essentially shaping the sound of the times? Did this plant the seed that eventually drove you to tell their story? And for how long did it percolate before you reached completion on the doc?

DENNY: I knew most of my life that most people had no concept of what my dad and his friends did, but I didn't realize how much I underestimated the impact of their story until I saw the film with audiences around the world.  Even though I lived with it my whole life, I forgot that most of the world, although they heard these songs, had no idea that it was a certain group that did all the recordings. 

The seed (for the film) was there for a long time, but when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, that kicked me into gear.  I knew we didn't have much time with my dad and I didn't want to have the regret of not jumping on the opportunity.  I'm so glad I did. 

NICK: Access is a big issue when it comes to making documentary work. If you can’t get in the right rooms, it can be really limiting on the final product. You definitely seem to have had a charmed experience when it comes to access. 

Beyond the actual members of the Wrecking Crew, you were able to interview Brian Wilson, Cher, Nancy Sinatra, members of The Monkees, Herb Alpert and other musical luminaries who were on the scene at the time. In addition to those interviews, the film is chock full of iconic recordings, archival photos and footage that all had to be licensed to be used. 

Did being the son of Tommy make getting access a bit easier than it might have been otherwise?

DENNY: Absolutely.  If I could get past the keeper of the gate and get that request in, I felt I had a chance.  I had a couple of contacts but not many.  I knew Cher's agent and asked her to ask. I think she asked Cher out of courtesy for me, which is unusual in that world.  Most requests are shot down at the door.  But I knew Cher loved this time period from working with her in the 80s on a rock video.  I was a grip and was standing next to her when we were about to roll camera.  I mentioned to her that she had worked with my father on some Spector dates and she asked who he was.  When I told her, her face turned with a smile.  

Don't forget, Cher was 16 at the time when she started working with these old studio guys.  Brian Wilson, Cher and many others were not stars when they worked with these musicians.  So their memories are of the early days when it was fun for them.  

The other great thing was my father's reputation as a person as well as the guitar player.  He was really well liked and loved.  He took care of the musicians that he worked alongside as well as the many young musicians that he came across.

NICK: Were there ways in which being your father's son was an impediment to the process? 

DENNY: No. I don't think so. If anything, I was maybe hesitant to keep calling and bothering people for interviews. But sooner or later they came around.

NICK: And were there any people, materials or music that you’d hoped to include but, ultimately, were not able to secure for the film?

DENNY: A couple of folks I wish I had interviewed.  The only person to turn it down was Leon Russell.  Not sure why, but I tried a few times.  He is a huge part of those years.  I tried to get Phil Spector and never did.  In the end, maybe that was for the better. 

Because I have funded it myself, it wasn't that easy to keep on shooting.  You still need a crew and gear.  I wish I would have been able to interview Jan Berry, Jack Nitzsche, Bobby Hatfield, of the artists and Ray Pohlman, Steve Douglas who died years earlier. 

Many folks didn't live south and I wasn't able to travel too much.  The one interview that I wish I could have redone was Larry Knechtel the great Piano and bass player who is from the Northwest.  I did an interview in Nashville when he was there and I had camera problems.  When you're doing it by yourself, its hard if you're wearing too many hats; I don't recommend it.

NICK: I first heard about the Wrecking Crew in the late 90s from other record collectors who were obsessively tracking down recordings featuring Hal Blaine on drums. Later, when getting into the Beach Boys post-surf material, I became aware of Carol Kaye’s innovative playing on Pet Sounds and the sessions for the aborted Smile sessions. Word has it that members of the Beach Boys began to, in addition to feeling uncomfortable with the material that Brian Wilson was coming up with for Smile, resent their lack of involvement in the recording process. 

In the film, Peter Tork of The Monkees speaks to his own feelings of disappointment upon learning that he would not be playing on the his band’s early studio recordings. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds also reveals that while his band mates felt slighted by being pushed out of studio sessions, The Wrecking Crew’s work on “Mr. Tambourine Man” lasted a few hours, whereas The Byrd’s band session for “Turn, Turn, Turn” involved upwards of 70 takes to get it right. 

Did you find when making the film that bruised feelings were just par for the course when it came to groups whose records were realized via The Wrecking Crew’s studio work?

DENNY: Not now. I think that is so far behind them. In some cases, its cool to say you had the Wrecking Crew play on your album.  Now I find everyone talking about how they recorded with these guys and its a badge of honor.  Everyone claims to have played with the guys and everyone says they are Wrecking Crew members.  Which is fine with me.

NICK: Your film occupies two documentary sub-genres in that it functions as both a profile of a musical phenomenon as well as a loving tribute to your father. Was it difficult to balance the two sides of this narrative coin? Was there anything that you were really attached to that you found yourself needing to leave out of the finished film to achieve this balance?

DENNY: This was a huge problem at the beginning.  I was never going to give it a certain slant towards my father or anyone else at the beginning.  Then in the editing, we had 30 minutes cut, and a friend and director, Grady Cooper asked me why I was doing this film?  I wasn't following the question but then he cut to the chase. "Any one of us can put together what you just did. But what you have is an inside to the story that none of us have and you can take advantage of it."  So my editor, Claire Scanlon and I started playing around with it and included my voice over at the beginning.  Then the notes came in at screenings, "What happened to the narrator?" 

This went on for months.  But one question kept coming up.  Was this a film about your father or the Wrecking Crew members?  I got that note from someone at Sundance who saw a rough cut and said we almost got in the festival, but that was the issue with the screeners.  I mentioned this to a friend who wasn't a film maker and he suggested, "why don't you just give a line like, "This is the story of my father and his extended family, The wrecking Crew?"  That was the last time we ever heard that problem come up again. 

Regarding the cutting room floor..... that's where it sucks.  Claire was brutal and she said to me at one point, you have to stop interviewing people.  We can't put everyone in or you won't fall in love with the characters.  I totally get that now but that's why God gave us DVDs and out takes.

NICK: The Wrecking Crew is your directorial debut. Congrats on having toured it around the world, as well as garnering quite a lot of praise from the press and audiences. Have you been surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reactions to your film? 

And on a side note, you began working on this film in 1996.  What's kept it from reaching an official release?

DENNY: The biggest surprises came with certain scenes in the movie that always get laughs that we never expected (while cutting it) it in the editing room.  Something about seeing a film together (as an audience) brought out laughter and emotions as a group.  The other big surprise is related to how we always talk about the British Invasion.   But I've shown this film from Israel to Spain and Glasgow to London.  Everyone knows this music.  This was America's greatest export. You didn't need to speak the language to love the songs. 

The greatest compliments come from unsuspecting audience members who were dragged to a "music documentary" by their husband, boyfriend or friend.  They walk away smiling.  The music that these musicians created brings back a time for the audience that was a good time for them. 

Even with the awards, great reviews, sold out audiences, we couldn't get a distributor to take on a documentary with a music budget to clear that was 300K.  So over the last couple of years, we've had to work through the International Documentary Association who have become our fiscal sponsor.  They're allowed to take tax deductible donations that enable us to pay off the labels and publishers, one by one.   Its not the best way of making a film but it's become the only way for us.  We've had donations come in from $10.00 to $50K.  It's the little ones that add up and because of them we're able to see the light.

NICK: Ok, so are there any plans for a future dvd release?  And, once the film does reach the end of its screening tour, what’s next for you?

DENNY: Yes yes yes.  I'm hoping it comes out for my birthday in March.  The film will not "end" until we pay off the licensing.  All these screenings have helped us pay off the labels and publishers over the last 2 years.  I've got about 150 to go and then we'll release it.  But I have to say, there isn't anything better than seeing this film with an audience. 

What's next for me?  I'm a freelance producer/director so I'm always working and looking--just like my dad did his whole life.  You have to keep answering the phone.  You never know who is on the other end.

The Wrecking Crew screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Monday, August 6th at 7:30pm.  Denny Tedesco will be in attendance with special guests in tow.  More info available here.

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Local documentary filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher return to the NW Film Center tonight for the Portland premiere of their latest collaborative work, Off Label.  Inspired by the work of Carl Elliott (author of "Better Than Well" and "A Philosophical Disease"), the film is an exploration of the unethical practices of big pharmaceutical companies, ranging from the use of "human guinea pigs" to the encouraging of physicians to prescribe medications for off label uses.

Palmieri and Mosher do an interesting thing with the film.  They allow their subjects to tell the story without any intrusion from narration, text, or primary sources drawn from corresponding literature.  It creates an overall shape for the piece that is a bit more subjective than most documentaries on like topics.  But it also focuses the attention on the human aspect of the subject, showing a preference for exposing the impact rather than obsessively combing over statistical information; such work has been performed elsewhere, though some additional context is provided by former pharmaceutical rep Michael Oldani.

Like their previous feature-length documentary, October Country, this is a beautifully shot piece.  One could easily watch it for the endless stream of vividly rendered imagery alone.  But paired with the intimacy of the interviews, it forms a strikingly provocative piece about a problem that many would prefer to ignore.  Off Label doesn't allow you to tune out the pain of its subjects.  You'll leave the film still grappling with what you've witnessed.

Tonight's screening is a one-night-only event.  Hopefully, there will be other chances to see the film in town in the near future, if so, I'll post about it here or on the blog's Facebook page.


Off Label screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on Wednesday, August 1st at 7pm.  More info available here.

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