Nostalgia trips are fun, but when they intersect with genius, virtuosity and genuine revelatory insight, they take viewers to a higher place. “The Wrecking Crew,” Denny Tedesco’s engrossing documentary about a legendary collection of Los Angeles session musicians, may ostensibly pay homage to individuals otherwise lost to history — including the filmmaker’s own father, Tommy, one of the Wrecking Crew’s most revered members. But it also raises potent questions about discipline, professionalism, authorial signature and the euphoria of being in the right place at the right time, with the chops to ride out a perfect, if fleeting, pop cultural wave.
“The Wrecking Crew” begins with the group’s most famous recording session: Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys album that galvanized the musical world when it came out in 1966. Although Wilson’s bandmates came in late to lay down their vocal tracks, it was very much Wilson’s own conceptual work, executed to perfection by the Wreckers — anonymous yeoman (and yeowoman) musicians who trained during the 1940s and 1950s and honed their craft playing television themes and movie scores, jingles and incidental music. “They were the ones,” Wilson recalls, “with all the spirit and know-how.”
Working with a roster of talent ranging from Wilson and Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector to Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra and Sonny and Cher, the Wrecking Crew provided the riffs, licks and spontaneous flourishes that became the iconic sounds of a generation. What’s more, they were often the real, uncredited instrumentalists on other groups’ records — not just marketing gimmicks like the Monkees and the Patridge Family, but such respected bands as the Byrds and Simon and Garfunkel.
Tedesco includes lots of terrific vintage studio footage, as well as later interviews with the stars they worked with and Wreckers who became stars, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. Like such films as “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “The Wrecking Crew” succeeds as important cultural history. But it’s also deeply personal for Tedesco, who explores how the demanding job of being L.A.’s No. 1 session cats affected not just his father’s personal life, but the lives of such colleagues as Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye.
Legend has it that the Wrecking Crew got its name because when they came on the scene, some old-guard cats thought they’d ruin the music business. Far from it. But the business might have ruined them: The era of the singer-songwriter — as well as the advent of synthesizers, drum machines and sampling — eventually put the Wreckers virtually out of business. But as songwriter Jimmy Webb notes, they represented a singular, momentary bubble — and while it floated, there was magic in it.
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief profanity, thematic elements and smoking. 101 minutes.