Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Salt of the Earth, The Wrecking Crew

                 Documentary Delights: Heartfelt Photography,
                 Rock-Solid Musicianship
                                                     Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
 This statement above is my standard disclaimer to warn readers that what they’ll encounter in my reviews may contain more information on the films under exploration than they care to know just yet; however, the commentary in this posting concerns a couple of excellent documentaries (one was an Oscar nominee for 2014 releases, the other certainly good enough to be considered for the 2015 final choices) which simply reveal what their subjects are about in a good bit of what might be called “encountering-detail” where there’s no dramatic revelation at the end, just a lot of extensions of the initial premise through the run of the films.  Therefore, I doubt that your future experience of the docs noted here will be in any way bothered by my statements; rather, I just hope that I’m encouraging you enough to seek out both of these whenever and however you get the chance.
                       The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders,
                                          Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
A powerful documentary about the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado and his many decades of stunning work, focused on capturing both the beauty of the natural world and the horrors that many people are forced to endure, mainly in the processes of war and famine.  The images are magnificent, the commentary from Salgado and others is inspirationally enlightening.

 The image above, taken by Sebastião Salgado, from his photo essay on Brazilian gold mine workers, caught the attention of German New Wave (at least that’s what the movement was called from the early 1960s-early 1980s, although neither this cinematic approach nor its adherents are so “new” anymore) director Wim Wenders’ (on the left in this photo, with Salgado on the right) around 1990, leading him to further investigate the photographer, then more recently establish a friendship and working relationship with him, and ultimately co-direct, with son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, this stunning documentary, one of the finalists in the recent race for the Best Documentary Feature (ultimately losing to Citizenfour [Laura Poitras; 2014] in a category very hard to choose within for prizes).

 Although there are plenty of uplifting and thoughtful words within the statements made in this well-crafted-doc, the old adage about a picture being worth 1,000 of them not only works in the philosophy of semiotics but also in our experience of The Salt of the Earth (Not to be confused with another conscience-awareness-presentation, the great Hollywood-conformity-rejecting/independent-spirit/Communist-sympathizing/critique of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy—including among the social reformers in the story being presented—radical statement for its time to be found in the classic film of almost-the-same-name, Salt of the Earth, made by industry Blacklisters Herbert J. Biberman [director; one of the original Hollywood Ten outcasts], Michael Wilson [writer], and Paul Jarrico [producer], along with a couple of the principal actors, Rosaura Revueltas and Will Geer). Therefore, I'll keep my words to a minimum so that you can concentrate on this small sample of the marvelous images to be found in this compelling work by Wenders and the Salgado, father and son.

 The elder pictorialist worked his way around the world for the purposeful intention of not only crafting stunning images but also documenting the travails of people at the mercy of the elements—but, more the human elements than what accosts us from nature. Some of his most gut-wrenching-pictures depict people in Africa (such as the one with the paragraph just above) uprooted from their homes, starving from lack of nutrition or near- (if not post-) death from cholera brought on by war-induced famine and disease.  Others show the brutal impact of man upon nature, as with this shot of oil wells in Kuwait set aflame by retreating Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War of 1990-1991.

 A native Brazilian (born in Almorés, Minas Gerias, on February 8, 1944)Sebastião Salgado now lives in Paris but still travels extensively, as he did for this doc so that Wenders could learn from their experience what the younger co-director had been doing with his father for quite some time, traveling to the far reaches of the globe in search of capturing the essence of a location, a situation, and the impact of that environment on the people who live there, but only after living among them for awhile to better understand their perspective and needs, not just to snap a powerful group of photos then head out on another assignment.  Thus, from his photographic beginnings in 1973 (when his first shot was of his wife and life partner, Lélia Wanick Salgado) until today, he—at times accompanied by son Juliano—has traveled to over 100 countries to experience and visually-transcribe the complex, varied nature of human existence, especially in its most difficult aspects (with insights likely honed from a previous career in economics, which he set aside for his life in editorial imagery).

 Wenders and the younger Salgado had an enormous catalogue of still photos from the oeuvre of Sebastião to work with, along with existing documentary footage of previous expeditions, so to round it all off they included commentary from the photographer shot in a darkened room where his incredible shots were projected onto a semi-transparent mirror so that the documentary camera (positioned behind the projector) was looking at both the enlarged image and Sebastião sitting behind it; in this manner, he could talk in real time about what we see while directly facing the documentarians' camera himself, then when a light is added to his location he becomes visible to us with his narration as if peering through his photo without the need for a post-production superimposition or dissolve.  (This is a device essentially borrowed from theatre where a translucent scrim can be put between audience and actors so that when the space behind it is in darkness there can be lit action in front of it or even images projected onto it, then when the front light/projection is turned off with the area behind the scrim now lit you can get the sense of action occurring in another location entirely—Orson Welles used this as an economical strategy when making the rapid transition from outside to inside of Charles Foster Kane's bedroom as he lay dying in the mysterious opening scene of Citizen Kane [1941]).

 In speaking of Salgado vs. the approaches of other documentarians, Wenders says: "The majority of them arrive somewhere, fire off a few photographs, and get out.  Sebastião doesn't work like that.  He spends time with the people he photographs to understand their situation, he lives with them, he sympathizes with them, and he shares
their lives as far as possible.  And he feels empathy for them.  He does this job for the people, in order to give them a voice. ... I think that Sebastião offered real dignity to all those people who found themselves in front of his lens.  His photographs aren't about him, but about all those people!"  Juliano Salgado extends those comments about his father with: "[F]or 40 years he found himself in extreme situations, that he has witnessed humanity confronting some terrible events. ... I'd seen him live with Indians and the Papuan people.  He sees people and does not judge them.  He puts himself on the same level as them, no doubt because he too comes from a tiny, very violent village in a remote part of Brazil, cut off from the world.  I think the people he photographs are sensitive to the benevolence of his viewpoint." Although, I might add that Sebastião Salgado also demonstrates remarkable ability with lighting, composition, and the impact of the visual encounter purely from an abstract design standpoint, no matter his content, as illustrated with this marvelous "architectural iceberg" shot.

 However, Sebastião's constant encounters with the misery of the world encouraged him to make a positive difference for our planet in addition to the "exposure" he was bringing through his photo books and expositions, so in 2004 he began his Genesis project, an ongoing series of landscape, wildlife, and human community photos that celebrate the existing beauty of the Earth and those who still live in a more pristine manner regarding their interchanges with nature, continuing centuries-old-patterns-of-life in cooperation with the land and waters.  A further extension of this concern for honoring and re-invigorating the planet began in 1998 with Sebastião and Lélia's project of reclaiming over-farmed family land in Brazil's Atlantic Forest, turning the area into a nature preserve; in conjunction with this, they founded Instituto Terra, an environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) focused on reforestation, conservation and education.  The Salt of the Earth immerses us in all of this information in a reasonable 109 min., never becoming preachy or boring, instead celebrating a vision of renewal in the midst of calamity, reveling in the power of images—including those collected stunningly in the package of a documentary film—to remind us of the integrated horror and wonder that constitutes our lives on this ever-more-burdened-planet.  Finally, although I’m not doing my usual structural analysis template for this stirring doc it still deserves its own Musical Metaphor so I’ll offer up “Nights In White Satin/Late Lament” (from the Moody Blues’ 1967 Days of Future Passed album) at, because this vocal pair speaks (to me at least) of the beauty, mystery, and agony of life all swirled together in a manner that recalls for me the haunting visuals of Sebastião' Salgado (I wish the visuals of this music video were more dynamic, but they’re best I’ve found backing the original recording which I’ve chosen over more current concert versions given that those offer a lineup of musicians just too different from the ones who made the band famous).

                      The Wrecking Crew (Denny Tadesco)

Another documentary, this one about a group of unknown-to-the-outside-world-but-terrifically-famous studio musicians in early ‘60s-mid-‘70s L.A. who provided the sound (but not the singing) on an enormous number of hits, so this is a nice nostalgic trip of long-after-the-fact-interviews and cuts from Top 40 records.  No particular insights here, but lots of great tunes.

 Once again, my now-standard-review-structure of What Happens, So What?, and Bottom Line Final Comments doesn’t make much sense with this doc’s fast-paced-stroll down memory lane because you get the premise right off the bat, after which the rest of the 101 min. running time is just one memory after another of how a loose-knit-group of incredibly-talented/fast-learner Southern California studio musicians helped define the soundtrack of many Baby Boomers’ lives (including mine) in the great coming-of-age-era of the 1960s.  Essentially, this is an expensive family-memorial-video, put together by Denny Tadesco in memory of his father, Tommy, a marvelously-versatile-guitarist who contributed a lot of tuneful-instrumentation—along with his colleagues collectively known as the Wrecking Crew—to an enormous number of second-wave rock n’ roll hits.  (Assuming the first wave began in the mid-1950s with such notables as Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and some Memphis truck driver named Elvis [who also did some of his later hits with the Wrecking Crew] , but due to various personal situations with all of those folks their days were mostly numbered except as nostalgia acts, to be replaced in the JFK/LBJ/Nixon eras with less “dangerous” stars—except for the Rolling Stones, of course—such as the Beach Boys, the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” [essentially Wrecking Crew folks] and its related girl groups, The Beatles, and the Motown stable, who had their own unnamed-but-essential-music-crew, the Funk Brothers.)  While the Stones and Beatles were the only ones in my previous rumination who set the standard for the-band-on-the-concert-tour to be the same ones who laid down all of the tracks in the studio for the records, other very successful groups such as the Beach Boys, The Monkees, The Byrds, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys were assumed to be their own instrumentalists for their hits, even though much of the time who you were hearing making the music when the needle hit the grooves were members of the Wrecking Crew who provided much of the sounds that sold the singles for a good part of that seminal rock 'n' roll era (we’re even told that for 6 years in a row in those days the Crew were the musical force behind Grammy’s highly-prestigious Record of the Year; unfortunately, we never find out which ones they’re referring to).

 The only surprise regarding artists such as Frank Sinatra, his daughter Nancy, Sonny and Cher, the Righteous Brothers, The Fifth Dimension, etc. who were clearly known as vocalists who needed someone to play some instruments for them is that it was some combination of these same studio wizards who performed on so many of their various hits, demonstrating what versatility the Wrecking Crew members (never an organized unit as such, with testimonial guesstimates that there may have been anywhere from 12-30 musicians included in that collaboration, although other estimates double the higher number who would have been considered part of that fluid, amorphous group) had in commanding such stylistic variety, but it’s clear that these guys were consummate pros.  However, it did come as a surprise to me that my beloved Beach Boys weren’t handling much of anything except vocals in the studio from about 1965 on, so that the marvelous instrumentation on songs such as “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” and the now-lauded 1966 Pet Sounds album (which even Paul McCartney admits was the challenge The Beatles felt they had to top in writing/recording 1967's Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—where they had acknowledged orchestral help themselves on some of their numbers but provided all of the fundamental guitar, bass, and percussion parts themselves) weren’t coming from Brian, Carl, Al, Bruce, and Dennis at all (although these guys were still able to make a successful showing for themselves without further backup musicians, as I saw in concert; yet, by the early 1970s to present there’s sure a lot more than a quintet out there doing their best to duplicate those memorable sounds on the once-again-highly-valued-medium-of-vinyl-discs), but instead studio-master-guys like guitarist Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine (on the left in this photo just above with Brian Wilson), and non-guy-bassist Carol Kaye (the only female in the group; more on her later).  Wilson’s one of the many who offer testimonials to the true instrumental powerhouses of those recordings (other interviewees include Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Roger McGuinn, Gary Lewis, and Dick Clark—whose death in 2012 forces us to understand that The Wrecking Crew was finished and on the festival circuit back in 2008 but had to wait until now until director Tedesco could raise the final $700,000—partially through a successful Kickstarter campaign—for the music rights to the 110 songs that fill this superb-jukebox-like-soundtrack).

 OK, back to Carol Kaye for a minute (shown here with guitarist/bassist Bill Pitman, like Tommy Tedesco a well-respected-session-player), not because she was the only woman in the group generally understood as the Wrecking Crew but because she contributed so many memorable riffs with her “bottom-end-instrument” (probably first noted by the general public in the hands of Brian Wilson, later to be made famous by the virtuosity of Paul McCartney with what had often been relegated to the status of a background instrument).  Kaye contributed a lot to Beach Boys hits, from “Help Me, Rhonda” on into the Pet Sounds sessions (note the 3rd and 4th suggested links for The Wrecking Crew below, after you finish this stunningly-brilliant-official-review-text), leading to a very successful career for a time (while she doesn’t name him directly, her chronological markers in a couple of comments note that in the mid-to-later-1960s she was making an annual salary higher than President Johnson), although like her other Crew mates her contributions weren’t recorded on album jackets nor did anyone outside of the studio-musicians-in-crowd even know who she (or any of the other Wreckers) was.  As noted in the film, sometimes these studio-pros would provide such an effective showcase for some singers that a performing group would be recruited to go on the road to promote a hit single or a hastily-produced-album, but they were merely imitating what had been concocted in the studio with vocalists and the Crew, although faux groups such as The Monkees at least learned to play their instruments sufficiently to fake competency on their tours.  By the mid-1970s, though, the impact of the Beatles/Stones/Crosby, Stills, and Nash, etc. popularity of musicians who truly did most everything for themselves (writing, singing, instrumental work, as well as concerts) began to undermine the need for such a dependable, tight group of studio wizards so they soon found their careers falling on increasingly harder times (personal problems sometimes hit hard as well; Blaine notes how he had to sell most everything he had—big house, fine cars, the whole “uptown” identity—in order to pay off a divorce settlement).  As times continued to get tough for these former kings of the inner chambers, one sums it up with a bitter joke:  “What do you call a trombone player with a pager?”  “An optimist.”

 Of the many members of the Wrecking Crew, the main ones who finally got the recognition that they deserved included guitarist/vocal Glen Campbell (who did have a brief Beach Boys-stint filling in for touring-traumatized Brian Wilson in very late 1964-early 1965 before moving into a very successful career of his own) and keyboardist Leon Russell who backed Joe Cocker at Woodstock on the way to his own notable career, both of whom get decent screen time in The Wrecking Crew, although the focus is rightfully on the well-respected-day- (and night, given their long sessions at times) laborers whose names rarely appear on an album cover.  Although not every song sampled during the flow of The Wrecking Crew will be in full-length on the not-yet-released-soundtrack-album (more info here if you’d like to pre-order a copy when it’s out in a couple of weeks; as always, Two Guys get absolutely nothing if you purchase anything), it’s claimed there’ll be 60 of them.  Within the film only partial inclusions could be used because of running-time-needs, but the list is extensive, with the ones that got most airplay on screen being “Wendy” (The Association’s song, not the Beach Boys’), “Good Vibrations” (OK, this one’s definitely from Brian Wilson and company), “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Be My Baby,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” “The Pink Panther Theme Song,” “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Wichita Lineman” (by which time Glen Campbell [in the above photo] had become the forefront singer but still used his Wrecking Crew buddies to back him up), “Hawaii Five-O Theme” (although The Ventures’ version is the one that became a radio hit), and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  So, with such a successful nostalgia experience, sending me back to high-school-euphoria (carefully-reconstructed-memory-version of course), why do I give this doc only 3½ stars of 5?  Mainly because while it helps me understand how important these skilled musicians were in crafting so many hit records that I still enjoy, once I was clear on the film’s premise it was just too much like one of those late-night-TV-ads for a “yesteryear CD bargain buy,” with hits I know “from the original artists!”  Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed The Wrecking Crew immensely, but a bit more as a Sirius radio scan than as a documentary film of the caliber of The Salt of the Earth.

 Still, with that impressive music catalogue to choose from (maybe even better than the excellent soundtrack of American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973], but that’s a close competition), it was difficult to pick the most likely Musical Metaphor for The Wrecking Crew, but I finally settled on “Dedicated to the One I Love” (from The Mamas & The Papas 1967 album Deliver) at https://www. (an admittedly rather-pathetic-visual-quality-video but it does show how little that art form had evolved in its earliest mid-1960s days and at least the vocal harmonies survive intact although not with Wrecking Crew musicians involved in this performance), emulating director Denny Tedesco’s use of this song to finalize his film, which he sweetly dedicates to the memory of departed-Dad Tommy (died 1997, long before he could see his son’s moving tribute) and all of the Wrecking Crew, dead or alive.  (Probably far too many in the former category by this point in time, another Baby Boomer reality that we all just have to live with as 67 isn’t just the year of Sgt. Pepper anymore—to the Crew members who’re still alive and kicking, we salute you; may you live long[er] and [continue] to prosper, with this marvelous [even though] long-belated-recognition—except for Blaine and fellow-drummer Earl Palmer, inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, with Blaine and Tedesco further considered to be the most-recorded drummer and guitarist, respectively [and respectfully], in all of human history.)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
Here’s some more information about The Salt of the Earth: (music video, “Papu’s Song,” from the film’s soundtrack, with images that show some of Sebastião Salgado’s photos and footage of some of the locations that he’s traveled to in order to shoot them; music by the doc’s co-director—and Sebastião’s son—Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Laurent Petitgand)

Here’s some more information about The Wrecking Crew: (25:07 interview with director Denny Tedesco and Wrecking Crew musician Don Randi; in that this segment finishes with talk about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' recording sessions, here’s another link,, that features the instrumental segments done by the Wrecking Crew for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” incorporating the final vocal/instrumental mix that became a hit single and a cut on the impactful 1966 Pet Sounds album)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Ken, thanks for the wonderful images accompanying this review. I wasn't sure if I should add them to my own (copyright?!) but your review looks ravishing in comparison. One thing I left out - what happened to his second son, with Down's Syndrome? He seemed to disappear from Salgado's life (please correct me if I've missed something!). My witterings on this film are here:

  2. Hi Jason, Thank you for your comments. As for the images, I took them from either Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb (no longer sure at this point) so I just have to assume that they were cleared for copyright at those sites, especially given that they're all taken from the film. Honestly, all I know about this wonderful experience is in my review so I'm of no help regarding the second son. As always, I very much enjoyed your comments on The Salt of the Earth. Ken