The Wrecking Crew: The hidden heroes of rock ‘n’ roll (my review)

B Music documentary

  • Directed by Denny Tedesco

Who supplied the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible? Despite what it says on the LP sleeves, much of the inspiration came from an unsung collection of Los Angeles session musicians informally called The Wrecking Crew.

Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, introduces these successful but little-known musicians in this mostly entertaining documentary. He interviews surviving members of the group, mixes in old footage, and explains the origins of the songs that became the background track of our youth.

The Wrecking Crew.

And if you’re thinking "Maybe your youth; not mine," you’re probably right. If you’re not a musician, a musicologist, or a baby boomer, this movie isn’t for you. But for me, a boomer who became a teenager in 1967, almost every tune brought back memories, then filled in details about those memories that I had never before thought about.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Tedesco spends a good deal of the film’s time on his father, who died in 1997. Aside from being a brilliant musician, Tommy Tedesco was a funny guy. He clowned around in the studio, in seminars, and on TV on the Gong Show. He’s inherently fun to watch.

Denny and Tommy Tedesco

But my favorite of the profiled musicians was Carol Kaye, a woman working in a predominately male industry in the decade where Mad Men is set. Starting out as a jazz guitarist and turning to bass as she moved to rock, her driving riffs filled in many a great song., including "California Girls," I’m a Believer," and "These Boots are Made for Walking."

Carol Kaye

None of these musicians started out in rock. But they were young adults as the new genre materialized in the 1950s, and they found a niche where they could earn a good living while doing what they loved. They were not formally a group, but often found themselves working together from one gig to another. In huge demand, they worked round the clock from one session to another, ignoring their families but raking in cash.

Until it stopped. In the late 60s, rock got serious, and fans wanted to know that the actual band members were playing the music. The gigs didn’t disappear immediately–the Crew also worked on other genres and recorded movie and TV scores–but they gradually leveled off.

Except for Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who became stars in their own rights.

image

Clearly, this is a companion piece for 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, concentrating on instrumental musicians instead of singers. But Tedesco can’t quite find the strong narrative line that made the earlier film so exciting. At times, especially in the middle, the discussions of one song after another become repetitive.

Another problem: Since the film is about session musicians, there’s no live performance footage. Studio work lacks the cinematic excitement of live rock and roll.

Aside from the Wrecking Crew veterans themselves, interview subjects include Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Albert, Lou Adler, and Brian Wilson.

Whiplash and the All-Male World of Jazz

I saw Whiplash a couple of nights ago. I liked it. It was tense. I very much wanted the protagonist to succeed, even though he was kind of a dick. Veteran actor J.K. Simmons, playing the most evil music teacher since Hans Conried in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., finally got the juicy part he so long deserved (he’ll also deserve the Oscar he’ll almost certainly get Sunday). And best of all, the music was great.

But it was set in a New York City that was almost entirely male, and pretty much white.

In Thursday’s Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote an excellent piece on the achingly few good roles provided for women in today’s American movies. He didn’t mention Whiplash, but it really made his point.

The film is set in what appears to be a very classy, totally fictitious music conservatory, apparently devoted entirely to jazz. And it’s an almost entirely all-male school? I saw one young woman among the students. We never heard her name, and if she had a line of dialog, I don’t remember it. She played sax.

Since that conservatory was created by writer/director Damien Chazelle, he was completely free to select the demographics of the student body. So why was the ratio of boys to girls something like 40 to 1?

image

Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer determined to become a great and legendary jazz musician. His name is Andrew, he’s played by Miles Teller. He is, of course, a white man. Simmons plays the teacher/bandleader Fletcher, also a white man. About half of the class are black men. But the important characters, including Andrew’s father and the drummers he competes with in class, are also white.

In reality, this teacher would have been fired long ago. He’s verbally abusive, and sometimes physically so. He uses sexist and homophobic insults. Obviously, in his view, you get the best out of a budding musician by loudly insulting his manhood in front of his peers. The film doesn’t suggest that these insults are in any way acceptable–Fletcher is, after all, the villain–but it seems strange that he’s been apparently getting away with this behavior for years.

image

There is a sort of female lead in the film, and…you guessed it…she’s Andrew’s girlfriend. Their relationship doesn’t last long. That’s hardly surprising–Andrew is a single-minded narcissist. To the film’s credit, the break up avoids the usual clichés. I don’t think she’s in more than four scenes.

Almost every American film, Hollywood or independent, is male centric, but this one seemed especially extreme. As I said, I liked Whiplash, but it left an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.

Opera in the multiplex

Wednesday night, I finally saw an opera in a movie theater. I liked the experience.

I’ve known about the Met Opera HD series for years. But I’ve never been a huge opera fan, so it took me awhile to get to one.

I picked a good one, Verdi’s Macbeth. While I’m not that big on opera, I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, and Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m certainly open to loose adaptations. After all, I love Throne of Blood.

Verdi stuck much closer to Shakespeare’s text than Kurosawa ever did. The libretto is in French Italian, but the setting is still Scotland and names haven’t been changed. If anything was left out, I didn’t notice it.

But Verdi added enough to stretch Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy to about three hours–not including the intermission. Every soliloquy in the play got turned into an aria, and I think there were some other arias thrown in, as well.

19th century operas apparently demanded far more spectacle than Elizabethan tragedies, and Verdi didn’t miss a chance to fill the stage with large choruses. Instead of three witches, we get what looked onscreen as 30. Banquo is murdered not be two assassins but what appeared to be a battalion. That make it awfully hard to believe how Banquo’s son got out alive.

image

Not much of Shakespeare’s language survived. You can’t take English iambic pentameter, translate it into French Italian song lyrics, then back into English subtitles, and expect a copy of the original. But famous lines (“Out, damn’d spot”) survived.

But the music was beautiful–at times joyful, martial, frightening, and tragic. Macbeth is the story of a potentially good man who consciously chooses evil. His wife, on the other hand, is evil incarnate. And yet, in the end, she’s the one who feels remorse, even if she doesn’t understand it. It’s a complicated story, and Verdi’s music helped take us on this moral roller coaster.

imageHe was helped by the cast, of course. Anna Netrebko sung and acted an amazing Lady Macbeth–scheming, manipulative, sexy, and way over the top. That’s how it works in opera. As her manipulated husband, Zeljko Lucic carries the title role with both the strength and the self- doubt that the part requires. His was also an excellent performance, but one that gets blown out of the water by Netrebko.

The production placed the story in the 20th century, around the time of World War II judging from the clothes, weaponry, and especially the jeeps. This is very much like modern Shakespeare productions, which tend to be set in any time after Shakespeare’s own. However, as I watched the previews for coming operas, I realized that Met was following a similar, “let’s update” approach.

In the first scene, as the camera panned across the chorus of witches, I noticed a few little girls mixed amongst the grown women. The girls didn’t sing; they were there for visual effect. Most of them looked awkward and confused, as if they didn’t know what to do. But one was clearly enjoying playing an evil witch. All of them were, of course, adorable.

But as I watched the scene, I realized that in those girls I was seeing something unique to live theater on the big screen. If I had been in the Met watching the show live, the girls would have been too far away to study. In a real movie, their amateurish performances would have been fixed with retakes and editing. But this was an entirely different experience.

I think I’m going to catch more operas.

10/17: I corrected an error. The libretto was in Italian, not French.

Music, Fame, and American Insanity: My Blu-ray review of Robert Altman’s Nashville

For an all-too-brief time in the 1970s, the Hollywood studios financed and released serious art. They greenlit films without likeable heroes, clearly-defined villains, or conventional, three-act plots.

They even financed Robert Altman, who did his best work during that time. And Nashville was unquestionably one of his best. It’s tragic, funny, thoughtful, and filled with interesting and entertaining characters. It’s a realistic slice of life, an over-the-top melodrama, and an absurdist comedy. As is appropriate considering the titular city, the film is filled with great music. And amazingly, it all works.

In lieu of a conventional plot, Nashville follows a lot of different people, all with some overlapping connection to each other, as they go about their business in country music’s home town. In the course of the film’s long running time (160 minutes), Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce us to famous singers, obscure singers, one horrible singer, businessmen, and a politician whom we never actually see, but whose voice we hear constantly over loudspeakers.

image

And Altman–a director that every actor wanted to work with–put together one of the most impressive casts in movie history. And almost everyone got to play a fully-developed character and show their acting chops.

And their singing chops. Laugh-in veteran Henry Gibson and 70’s icon Karen Black play big music stars. Not only do they sing in the film–and sing very well–they wrote their own songs.

I can’t discuss everyone who stands out in Nashville, but here are some of my favorite characters:

Lily Tomlin plays a devoted wife and mother, a religious Christian, and the only white person in a Gospel choir. But she has something to hide, and that something–or perhaps I should say someone–comes back to town.

Like Gibson and Black, Ronee Blakley plays a big country western star. But she’s been away for a while; and she is very much not well. Her public loves her, but that love may slide as she mentally deteriorates.

image

Keith Carradine plays a singer/songwriter who enjoys being irresistible to women (and not much else). In one scene in a bar, Carradine sings the song "I’m Easy" (which he wrote), and four different women think he’s singing about them.

Geraldine Chaplin plays an astonishingly inept BBC reporter (if she really is a BBC reporter), with a knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Chaplin proves herself an excellent comedian, which is hardly surprising considering her father.

Also worth noting is Ned Beatty’s businessman, Shelley Duvall’s groupie, Keenan Wynn as a man with a sick wife, and both Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles as hopeful singers. Two actors who would become famous in the following decade, Scott Glenn and Jeff Goldblum, turn up in many scenes with little explanation..

Tewkesbury’s script finds many ways to bring all of the characters together. There’s a triumphant return at the Nashville Airport, the aftermath of a car accident, and several concerts. Many of the characters know each other and their lives overlap in various ways, but they all have their own separate stories.

Altman was not the first filmmaker to use this type of multithreaded narrative. To my knowledge, Agnès Varda did it first in La Pointe Courte (like Nashville, named after the place the story is set). Kurosawa did it in Dodes’ka-den. And even George Lucas did it in American Graffiti. But Altman did it so often that it became one of his trademarks. And his first time, in Nashville, he did it best.

First Impression

imageThe dead-tree parts of the package–the cardboard slip cover, the outside of the disc holder, and the small booklet–are treated to look like old, yellowed pulp paper. The booklet contains credits for the film and the transfer, and an article by Molly Haskell.

Following Criterion’s current policy, the package offers the same content on DVD and Blu-ray. Because of all the extras, this requires three discs–two DVDs and one Blu-ray. Only a Blu-ray can hold both the movie and the extras–and have bookmarking features that DVD doesn’t support.

I do wish, however, that the package contained one other disc: the soundtrack album CD. This movie has some great songs.

How It Looks

Great. The Nashville Blu-ray has the look of the original movie–a 1970’s Hollywood film shot in anamorphic Panavision and Eastmancolor. The film doesn’t look razor sharp, but it was never intended to look that way. This was always–and I assume intentionally–a soft-focus movie. The colors are spot-on. The film grain is there if you look for it, but it’s not distracting.

How It Sounds

When I looked at the box, I was disappointed to read that it sports only a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Nashville was originally released in four-track magnetic stereo, and I was hoping that Criterion would recreate that original mix in 4.0 surround–as they did for High and Low.

But after watching the film and listening to the lossless MTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, I can’t complain. It sounded great, and had that "Wow! This is in stereo!" effect that movies had before Dolby made the whole thing ubiquitous. I suspect it was very close to the original mix, with maybe a little bit of barely-noticeable split surrounds and subwoofer lows.

And the Extras

  • Commentary track by Robert Altman: As I write this, I’ve only gone through about half of this. Altman has some interesting things to say, mostly about his seat-of-the-pants working methods, but he doesn’t seem to have enough to say, overall. He pauses a lot, often for long stretches.
  • The Making of Nashville: This new, high-def documentary by Criterion runs for 71 minutes. Cast members and other collaborators talk about Altman and the movie. Easily the best extra on the disc.
  • Robert Altman Interviews: Three different TV interviews, from 1975, 2000, and 2002. About 40 minutes total. Although there’s some repetition, all three are worth watching.
  • Behind the Scenes: 12 minutes. Footage shot during production, specifically of the traffic jam sequences and the big closing concert. Bad video, no sound. The little bit I saw wasn’t interesting.
  • Keith Carradine Demo: 12 minutes His three songs, recorded in Altman’s LA office. 12 minutes. Audio with photos to give us something to look at. Really rough.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes

Nashville is one of the great American films of the 1970s. Criterion has done it justice. The disc goes on sale next Tuesday, December 3.

Prix de Beaute: Silent Film Festival Opening Night

This year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened at the Castro Thursday night with Louise Brooks' last starring role, Prix de Beaute (The Price of Beauty). I wouldn't put this French feature quite in the same category as Pandora's Box, but I liked it very much.

Brooks plays a working girl who enters and wins a beauty contest, becoming first Miss France and then Miss Europe. Her fiancé doesn't approve. In fact, he believes that beauty contests should be outlawed. She leaves her celebrity behind to marry him–a formula for a very sad marriage.

Historians argue over whether Louise Brooks was a great actress or merely a great beauty. Prix de Beaute should settle the controversy. She was both. You have absolutely no trouble believing that she's the most beautiful woman in Europe, or that she's a deeply conflicted soul, in love with an overly jealous, overbearing man that she's growing to hate.

Stephen Horne provided his usual excellent accompaniment. I wasn't seated where I could watch him, so I can't say what instruments he played beyond the piano. I think I heard an accordion, something like a guitar, and maybe a flute.

Prix de Beaute was made as a sound film (someone else dubbed Brooks' lines), but the Festival screened the silent version made for theaters not yet wired for sound. At the very end, Horne stopped playing and the original soundtrack came up. I can't tell you why without spoiling the ending, but it was dramatically the right thing to do.

Although this was a new restoration played off a DCP, this French film was shown with Italian intertitles. The theater projected yellow subtitle translations.

All in all, a very good presentation of a very good film. I'm looking forward to three more days of silent movies.

SFIFF Silent Movie Night: Waxworks with Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant

Every year, the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival hosts a silent film event, where they match a movie–generally not one everyone has seen–with one or more musicians who enjoy a strong local following–but are not associated with silent film accompaniment.

This makes sense both culturally and financially. The event, always held at the Castro, attracts both silent film fans and fans of the musicians. The two groups mingle, and each is exposed to something new. And more people buy tickets, as well.

At least that’s the theory. Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it doesn’t work at all.

Tuesday night, it worked beautifully. Let’s start with the movie:

With its exaggerated visuals and strong horror elements, Waxworks is German expressionism through and through. Directed by Paul Leni in 1924, it’s the only film I’ve seen with both major stars from the period: Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. Unfortunately, they have no scenes together. (Leni, Jannings, and Veidt all moved to Hollywood before the decade ended. Jannings and Veidt returned to Germany when sound came in. Veidt left for good after Hitler came to power. Jannings, to his immortal shame, did not.)

This anthology feature uses a simple framework to tell three different dark and imagedemented stories. A young writer takes a job in a wax museum, coming up with stories for the exhibits. Most of the film is made up of two such stories. The first stars Jannings as a sultan out to take a baker’s wife. The second stars Veidt (easily one of the best heavies cinema ever had) as the most evil Ivan the Terrible you can imagine. The third story, about Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss) is nothing more than a chase.

Like all anthology movies, it’s uneven. But I enjoyed it.

The music helped considerably. I know nothing about the musicians that took the stage–Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant–I can’t even tell you if they play together regularly.  Their music–harsh, percussion-heavy, and usually without melody–would probably drive me crazy under any other circumstance. But it suited the film perfectly, adding to the creepy feel. They found plenty of ways to produce the sounds they wanted, including scat singing and rubbing a balloon. At home point, when Veidt rhythmically claps as wedding guests dance (only Veidt could make that threatening), one of the musicians beat two wooden sticks together for each clap.

The Festival got a hold a beautiful, tinted, 35mm print from Cineteca di Bologna. Some scenes were both tinted and toned–creating a two-color effect that until last night I had never seen on the big screen. There were a few scratches and a couple of moments of nitrate decomposition, but it was still a joy to watch. Although it was a German film and the print came from an Italian archive, the intertitles were in French. The Castro projected English translations as supertitles.

All told, a wonderful evening.

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey

B+ Music Documentary

  • Directed by Ramona S. Diaz

Note: I wrote this review after seeing this documentary at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, with the intention of posting it just before the theatrical release. Then I filed it away and forgot about it. When the movie opened last month at the New Parkway, I remembered the movie well enough to mention it in my weekly newsletter, but I forgot to post my review. So here is the review its complete form.

I’ve never been a fan of Journey, but this music documentary made me a fan of the band’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda. He’s charismatic, energetic, down-to-earth, and funny. He also has a great set of pipes. (I use the word new loosely. He’s going on five years with the band.)

Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz tells Pineda’s story, the band’s story, but mostly, the story of how he became a part of Journey. It’s about as inspiring a tale as you’re likely to dont_stop_believinfind in the real world.. Band members, desperate for a new singer, found the poverty-stricken, Manila-based Pineda on YouTube, flew him out to California, worked with him for a few weeks, then took him on what became the most successful tour of Journey’s long history. At least in Diaz’s interpretation, Pineda’s wide vocal range, athletic on-stage antics, nice-guy charisma, and youthful enthusiasm brought about the band’s resurging popularity.

It also helped that he’s Filipino. The new ethnic and racial mix made the band more interesting, and made Journey even more popular in the Philippines and amongst ethnic Filipinos in the United States and elsewhere. Diaz, herself a Filipino American, introduces us to several unusually worshipful fans of Filipino heritage.

Pineda’s pre-band life in the Manila was anything but easy. His family was extremely poor, and for a period homeless. Eventually, his singing led to work in a cover band, which provided barely enough money to bring his family together and rent a small home. Still in his teens, he became his family’s main breadwinner.

Looking at him perform, or even talk to the camera in close-up, I would put Pineda in his late twenties or early thirties. But as he describes his past life to Diaz’s camera, it becomes clear that he’s been around considerably longer than that. According to Wikipedia, he was 39 when Journey called. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t fall into the usual traps associated with sudden rock and roll fame–he was already mature enough to avoid them.

Most of Don’t Stop Believin’  follows Journey on tour. We’ve this in other rock docs, but Diaz shows us more of the work that goes into music. We see Pineda doing voice exercises, and taking strict care of his throat so that he doesn’t blow it out. The closest this film ever gets to conflict or suspense involves a head cold.

That lack of conflict makes the movie drag at times, but Pineda has such a magnetic personality, and the story is so upbeat, that Don’t Stop Believin’ s infectiousness will catch you, anyway. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers