The Wrecking Crew: Tommy Tedesco, dean of the studio guitarists and the architect of wreck.
What do this week’s films have in common? Both were found in Chula Vista, on the shelves of the Deseret Thrift Store, waiting patiently for me to take them home.
The Wrecking Crew (2008)
“What is their name?” asks Tommy Tedesco, legendary dean of the studio guitarists. “Willie Vanilli, or what the hell their shit is? They had nothing on us. We did that all the time.” Who ever thought we’d live to see the day when someone likened The Beach Boys to Milli Vanilli, but the comparison here is a fair one. With the exception of Brian Wilson, not one band member played so much as a lick on the Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds album. That honor went to an elite corps of studio musicians, led by the inimitable Mr. Tedesco, that performed on virtually every hit song over a period that extended from the late ‘50s through the early ‘70s. Despite the risk of being mistaken for the Dean Martin spy spoof of the same name, the sweet-sounding phenomena came to be collectively called The Wrecking Crew. Members not only performed the charts, in many instances they produced and arranged the music as well. According to Tommy, composers “put notes on paper, but that’s not music.” It was up to these versatile veterans, who came of age at the same time as rock itself, to make it pop. They devised riffs and bass lines, and were ultimately as responsible for the sound of the music as the frontmen who got all the glory (and a bigger payday.).
The documentary was a 14-year labor of love by Tommy’s son Denny Tedesco. More than just a kid’s attempt to garner posthumous recognition for his old man, The Wrecking Crew is a remarkable chronicle of an illusion-rich period in music history that, prior to its release, was one of the best kept secrets in the business. Not only was the general public kept in the dark, even rock impresario Dick Clark confessed, “I had no idea that certain people didn’t play their own records until The Monkees came along.” (Neither did band member Mickey Dolenz, who recalls, “I never considered myself a musician. I approached The Monkees as an actor playing the part of a drummer in this imaginary group.”)
How many studio artists formed the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew? No one knows exactly, but when pressed, percussionist Julius Wechter guesses that 20 to 30 of the approximately 40,000 musicians working in Los Angeles at the time were the real hit makers. The Crew backed up The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Nat Cole, The Association, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Sonny and Cher, Jan and Dean, and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound — to name but a few. And it wasn’t just rock ‘n roll. On television, you heard them each week, performing many of your favorite themes from shows like Bonanza, Batman, The Partridge Family, Green Acres, and M*ASH. And I must confess to feeling goose pimples watching Plas Johnson blow the famous riff from The Pink Panther Theme.
The project began in 1996 when Denny reunited four of the Crew’s original members for a filmed roundtable. In addition to his dad, there was bassist Carol Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, and saxophonist Plas Johnson. In the early ‘60s, the team was quite unlike anything the music business had ever seen. Instead of sporting staid blue blazers, these guys had the audacity to show up for work in blue jeans. According to Blaine, the older studio players feared they were going to wreck the business. Hence the name.
No wonder groups had to lip synch on shows like American Bandstand. When asked to perform live, many of the inexperienced band members found it impossible to duplicate the work of the masters. Tommy played a particularly complex Spanish-sounding lick on Gary Lewis and the Playboy’s “Sure Gonna’ Miss Her” that the group’s guitarist found impossible to duplicate. “All of my guitar players played a much (more) simplified version of it,” Lewis laughingly recalls, “because nobody could play that.”
Alas, Tommy didn’t live to see so much as one frame from his son’s film. He died in 1997 at the age of 67. For years, The Wrecking Crew remained the greatest rockumentary no one had ever seen; at the time, royalty fees alone for the 133 songs heard on the soundtrack cost $300,000 to acquire. More than just a musical cruise down Nostalgia Lane, the filmmakers take a wrecking ball to the myths, and in the process do a damn fine job of readjusting the spotlight.
44 Inch Chest (2009)
When this film and I first met over a decade ago, I remember exiting the Landmark Hillcrest and wondering aloud, “Why did they name it 44 Inch Ch…,” Oh, I get it, rang the bell in my head! The more difficult question is why IMDB lists it as a drama when my ribs ached from the tickling they took. The movie had me at the five minute mark, with a shot of a poodle cowering under the sofa. Name another film that bothers to care about what happens to the family pet after its owner has been killed. (It’s probably the only drop of genuine compassion shown throughout the entire picture.) But this is not a murder scene, and that’s where the brilliance of the opening segment comes into play. Shots follow shots in the most unexpected manner. We open on a ransacked house and come to rest on Colin’s (Ray Winstone) presumably dead body while awaiting a flashback to explain how he managed to land in such a wretched predicament. The body stirs, but it will take 95 minutes for it to become painfully clear that the poor schmuck lives to suffer for his macho sins. It’s not as though Colin isn’t a sentimental bloke at heart. He repeatedly listens to Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” to ease the pain of brutalizing Liz (Joanne Whalley), his wife of 21 years. He’s also quite the romantic. Who else in the cast would allow their missus free access to the remote control? At first glance, Meredith (Ian McShane) appears to be the picture of heterosexual virility. That is until a cut reveals a naked young lad stretched out across his couch opposite Meredith. Meredith and three other friends soon join Colin, but what for? Archie (Tom Wilkinson) lives with his mom, and is the most casually dressed of the bunch. Mal (Stephen Dillane) could be a stock broker, were it not for the tattoo poking out from underneath his collar, and as for Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), well, we’ll get to him later.
Why does the quintet of hoods climb into the back of a van? Are they going to knock over a bank? They’re not wearing gloves or masks. They pull up to the French café, but surely the boys aren’t out for a bite of lunch. Their aim is to kidnap Loverboy (a mute Melvil Poupard), the young stud who has stolen Liz’s heart. After the gents settle into their hideaway, where they dine on potato chips and booze straight from the bottle, all traces of cinema cease and the original screenplay becomes theatre bound. Normally at this point, my mind would have been out the door, but the dialogue and performances are so acutely off-putting that I continually found my knee bruised from all the slapping. (The majority of that dialogue rhymes with “hunt” and “buck,” the Gatling gun stream of profanities would make David Mamet wince.) The script, written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto of Sexy Beast fame, relies little on exposition, doling out just enough backstory to give audiences something to work with. Other than an acute awareness that these five hoods have spent ages working together, little else is known about these characters.
Come for the kidnapping and leave singing “Found a Peanut.” Through his concrete jaw, John Hurt spews forth some of the most hate-fueled hyperbole since Johnny Boy and Mikey mixed it up in Mean Streets. Not many characters come to mind who achieve the depraved depths of wrathful indignation that Old Man Peanut displays here. When Peanut learns of the brutality Colin has unleashed upon his wife, all he can say is, “Good boy!” Apart from being a master sadist, Peanut is also a bit of a history buff, at least when it comes to history as filtered through the eyes of Cecil B. DeMille. In the film’s funniest scene, director Malcolm Venville incorporates clips from Samson and Delilah to illustrate Peanut’s insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the male animal. It helps when Meredith joins in the play-by-play by describing how he’d like to violate Victor Mature (and Burt Lancaster and Sir Paul McCartney). Unless a giant career move awaits, Venville’s first narrative feature could be his penultimate work. Henry’s Crime, produced one year later, was followed by a string of documentaries. It’s a pity; Venville has a way with actors and knows how to choreograph dialogue. He also does a keen job of deceiving the audience by planting the second half of the film squarely in Colin’s paranoid head.
Every now and again a film, generally a comedy, comes along that forces me to set aside my prickly insistence that movies must tell their stories through visuals. While it’s not much to look at, I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to conscienceless dialogue and an exceptional ensemble, this is a treasure chest.