Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Wrecking Crew

Genial and chaotic, The Wrecking Crew (2012) is a documentary about studio musicians instrumental to the success of many of the biggest pop music acts in the sixties and seventies.  Incidentally, the film poses an interesting philosophical question about genius in the performing arts.  The movie is continuously interesting, inspiring in a way, and, also, profoundly frustrating.  The Wrecking Crew, a lovingly hand-made film produced on a shoe-string budget, apparently, couldn't afford to purchase the rights to the music that it features -- for this reason, the soundtrack is comprised of snippets of famous songs; it's like the "fair use" doctrine run amuck.  Usually, the fragmentary pop song quoted in the film is sufficiently interesting or induces enough nostalgia in the viewers that we would like to hear the whole tune -- but the movie only gives us eight to ten bars with, perhaps, a reconstruction of an accompanying guitar part or the exposure of a bass riff integral to the music but something that you wouldn't otherwise notice.  The effect is that the viewer is always longing for more music and less commentary.  Its like a dinner comprised of tapas, you get intriguing tastes of this or that, but the main entrĂ©e is nowhere to be seen.  Many famous pop tunes from the era can be summoned whole to the imagination with only a phrase or so ringing on the soundtrack.  But some of the most characteristic hits have sneaky key changes or peculiar, spacy harmonies (for instance, the Beach Boys' songs) or involve operatic effects such as those achieved by Phil Spector's "wall of sound" -- those tunes aren't well served by being presented (or better said) "sampled" in 8 second fragments. 

From the early sixties to the mid-seventies, a group of accomplished, largely anonymous studio musicians adapted the raw, often primitive, rock and roll tunes into sophisticated radio-ready top-forty pop songs.  These musicians are portrayed as centered around a mercurial guitar player named Tommy Tedesco -- the film is made by his son, features home movies, and, accordingly, elevates Tedesco to the role of central figure.  This seems entirely arbitrary because any number of other session musicians were equally significant and important to the industry -- for instance, we meet a female bass player named Carol Kaye who seems to have been preternaturally omnipresent and ingenious; she illustrates on her guitar the innovations that she invented for the various songs on which she worked.  These musicians, mostly trained as Jazz players, found that they could escape the bebop ghetto for the mass market of LA-produced rock and roll.  (Something similar seems to have happened in Nashville and Memphis -- I recall knowing people who went to Robert Altman's Nashville five or six times just to see Vassar Clements, a premiere session player in country-western music, perform on film.) Although the musicians seem to have had some contempt for the tunes that they made famous (they call it "chug-a-chug music"), the work paid very well and offered them a wide and, mostly unimpeded, field for the exercise of their virtuosity -- many of the famous groups popular at that time were inept musically or, at least, entirely lacking in ingenuity, and the innovative, sophisticated garnish supplied by the studio players was the ingredient that made their resulting records go gold and platinum.  From a structural perspective, the problem with the movie is that its focus is too broad -- the film touches on innumerable session musicians all described as being eerily fluent and fantastically flexible -- and soon enough we lose track of the narrative (if, in fact, there is any narrative at all).  Much of the movie seems simply to be a list of studio musicians, people of whom you've never heard -- the role of the movie is to correct that injustice and it does, but so fulsomely that, ultimately, just about every player in southern California gets listed at one point or another.  This overly broad focus dilutes our attention to the main characters, several of whom seem to have had remarkably interesting lives -- I'm referring to Tedesco who once appeared in a self-deprecating ballerina costume on The Gong Show (an appearance that Frank Zappa simultaneously praises and condemns), another guy who was married six times and repeatedly lost his fortune to ex-wives (at one point forced into working as a security guard) and the fascinating and beautiful Carol Kaye. (Another curious sidelight is that Glen Campbell, later a number one headliner, began his career playing by ear with "the Wrecking Crew" -- he never really learned to read music and people were surprised that he knew how to sing.) The film's broad point is that many of the famous acts of the time could scarcely play their instruments, had little talent, and wouldn't have been famous but for the accompaniment of the "wrecking crew" musicians.  This point seems to be well-taken with respect to Sonny and Cher, the Birds, the Monkees (a wholly fictitious band in which the "musicians" had no musical training at all and were selected solely on the basis of their appearances), the Mamas and the Papas, and, perhaps, Herb Alpert and Nancy Sinatra.  But the point is less clear where the "wrecking crew's" role was more collaborative and where they performed with headline musicians of legitimate stature.  For instance, the documentary's point is attenuated almost immediately by long sequences involving collaboration with Brian Wilson, asserted to be a Mozart-like musical genius by everyone who worked with him.  And the case is further complicated by the Crew's work with people like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Simon and Garfunkel.  Accordingly the film stands for two mutually inconsistent propositions -- the Wrecking Crew made all the difference, transforming mediocre pop tunes into hits through their musical acumen and, simultaneously, the Crew was merely adjunct and accessory to the musical genius of some acts -- for instance, Brian Wilson's Beach Boys. 

Despite its rather murky structure and overbroad scope, the film is effective because it is so cheerful and bright -- an unabashed celebration of musical accomplishment, one of the few uniquely praiseworthy aspects of human ingenuity.  The joy that the musicians exhibit is impressive and inspiring -- there is, of course, a joy that comes merely from doing a good job, the best job you can do and the film is infectious about this sort of happiness.  The film has a "dying fall" because, in the end, the new singer- songwriters changed the hitmaker Brill Building paradigm and the highly paid studio musicians lost their jobs.  But music and musical tastes are ephemeral and all of the musicians seem to have been pleasantly surprised that for a couple of decades they could earn small fortunes playing as anonymous back-up musicians on hit records.  Someone is always waiting to take your place -- that was the creed of the session musicians and, so, when they were displaced from importance, it was a fall that each of them had, more or less, anticipated. 

The philosophical issue that the movie raises is esthetic.  What was the indefinable "something", the sprezzatura that these musicians contributed to the records on which they played?  How would you define it?  And what ultimately is the distinction between something that is (merely) very good and a work of genius?

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