Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[Film] "The Wrecking Crew" (2008)

I saw a number of films in the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. Most of them were music documentaries, brought to the festival by guest curators Allison Anders and Tiffany Anders, a mother and daughter team from Los Angeles who combine film-making chops and music appreciation (and indeed music-making - Tiffany Anders has released an album produced by P.J. Harvey). This was the first film they presented to us, a documentary by Denny Tedesco about the Los Angeles session musicians who played on every record released in the 1960s. It featured interviews with some of these people as well as with some of the people who fronted their records (Cher, Brian Wilson, Nancy Sinatra, Jimmy Webb, among others). Glen Campbell manages to straddle both camps, as he worked for a long time as a session musician in Los Angeles before eventually releasing his own records, on which many of the other session musicians played. Tedesco's father, was the late Tommy Tedesco, another session guitarist, and he appears in archive footage and some interviews filmed before he died.

I was a bit worried before this film started that something would go wrong with it. I am not sure what exactly I feared, but maybe the experience of the Muscle Shoals film had me thinking that the film would be over-poncey or that it would feature too much in the way of irrelevant talking head stuff from gobshites who would have had little or nothing to do with the music under discussion. But it all works. The music does a lot of the talking (they managed to get rights to lots and lots of it, thanks I think to some kind of Kickstarter campaign that raised a lot of cash), and it is very good music. The musicians tell their stories, though as these people were jobbing musicians rather than people going on the road and getting up to hi-jinks the stories are a bit "I played on this record and came up with this baseline; then I played on this record and came up with this guitar lick". There is not really much about snorting cocaine off the buttocks of underage groupies in this film.

Even so, the musicians do not come across as boring. Tommy Tedesco seems to have been a bit of a roffler, while Carol Kaye (one of few women musicians at the top level of this scene) comes across as an interesting character. Drummer Earl Palmer maybe says the most interesting thing of all of them, revealing that he did not particularly like any music other than jazz, but when you are being paid to play on a rock, pop, or country record you have to play it like it is your favourite thing. That probably is stating the obvious, but I can imagine that very few people are capable of doing it.

There were a couple of interesting questions that the film did not explicitly address. One of these was the question of creativity. The musicians and the other voices talk a lot about the session players' contribution to the recording process, which went far beyond just playing parts handed to them. There is much mention of distinctive guitar riffs, drum rolls and basslines created by the session players, contributions without which these records would lack so much that in many cases they would not have been hits without them. I found myself wondering whether the musicians found these contributions a sufficient outlet for their creativity, or whether they cared. They were being very well paid, after all, and it was striking from the film how few of them bothered releasing records with their own original compositions.

The other question was one that would have jarred in a film that was such a celebration of these musicians. Basically, if you have a situation where the same people are playing on all the records, does it end up with all the records sounding the same? These were very versatile players who could adapt their styles to the type of music they were playing, but did these players' ubiquity lead to music that was plastic and soulless? No one asks this question in the film and there is no real expression of the somewhat rockist contention that bands should play on their own records without recourse to session players.

The film reports that the glory days of the Los Angeles session players came to an end. The bands got better at playing their own instruments so the Wrecking Crew were no longer so needed, and another generation of younger and cheaper players came up and took their place. But the film does not have a "rock music is a shit business" vibe to it. The sense I got was that in the heyday of the scene these people made a lot of money (at one point it was mentioned that in the mid-1960s Carol Kaye was earning more than the US President) and that if their income declined it did not disappear. Perhaps because so much of the music in this film is so appealing, the film could not really leave the viewer with anything other than a sense that music is great.


Forgotten Heroes: Carol Kaye (Carole Kaye image source)

Drummerworld: Earl Palmer (Earl Palmer image source)

Tommy Tedesco and Friends on the Golden Age of Studio Guitar (Tommy Tedesco image source)

Muscle Shoals (my review of this film)

The Anders' JDIFF music programme

An inuit panda production

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