Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Unsung and Unknown - The Wrecking Crew & I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

The Wrecking Crew.

It's largely held to be true that when The Beatles invaded America in 1964, one of the seismic impacts they had was in wiping out the Sixties rebirth of Tin Pan Alley. An ambitious group of songwriters (Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, 'Doc' Pomus and Mort Shuman) were all situated in the Brill Building in New York City there looking to sell hit songs. And many great ones they did indeed sell. But The Beatles proved that by writing your own tunes and playing your own instruments you needn't be solely dependent on other songwriters to provide your material. Pretty soon, just about anyone who could pick up a guitar started performing and composing – but not all of them could do both. In Los Angeles, there lurked a famous collection of somewhat anonymous session musicians – dubbed 'The Wrecking Crew' – who played on an abundance of familiar hits by The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, not to mention just about every hit song produced by Phil Spector, including The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," The Crystals' "He's a Rebel" and Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High." Totally unsung, and yet playing key roles in songs ranging from "God Only Knows," "California Dreamin'," "The Beat Goes On," "Last Train to Clarksville" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" to Frank Zappa's masterful orchestral absurdity Lumpy Gravy (1967), the Wrecking Crew were sonic dreamers and dedicated trench soldiers who conjured up a storehouse of memorable hooks, even if, as a nameless group, they existed in the dark.(The album covers for bands like The Monkees didn't even credit them as the players on the record.)

This diversified collection of seasoned performers is the subject of The Wrecking Crew (2008), which played the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto a few months back. The picture is good fun – informative and a generous piece of work. Director Denny Tedesco, whose father was the Crew's virtuoso guitarist, Tommy Tedesco, starts out highlighting the significant contributions that his father made to the American pop music of the Sixties. But he moves beyond making a cozy family portrait and opens it up into a larger and memorable scrapbook that highlights all the talented and eccentric musicians that the listening public never knew. The ensemble includes the versatile session drummer Hal Blaine (who not only coined their name, but created a huge number of highly recognizable drum riffs including the opening to The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't it Be Nice"), and the bassist and guitarist Carol Kaye (who was not one of the few female session players of her era, but also came up with the walking bass line that opens "The Beat Goes On" ). Many of the Crew would later go on to become solo stars on their own like Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. Jack Nitzsche soon become an arranger for Neil Young with Buffalo Springfield ("Expecting to Fly") and then worked on his Harvest album in the Seventies while also becoming a film composer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

Carol Kaye and Tommy Tedesco.

The Wrecking Crew is quite informal and casual, too, which gives the picture much of its charm and agreeable quality. Unlike Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), which looked at the Funk Brothers, the anonymous musicians who provided non-credited accompaniment to many of the great Motown singles, The Wrecking Crew doesn't sentimentalize their plight. Standing in the Shadows of Motown seemed to be making the argument that it was the Funk Brothers who were responsible for making those great songs by The Four Tops, The Supremes and Marvin Gaye possible (which turns out to be a ludicrous argument once you hear them backing up Joan Osborne as she butchers "Heat Wave"). The Wrecking Crew makes no such claim that session musicians are the forgotten artists, but rather it demonstrates the subterranean artistry that lurks behind their anonymity. You come to see how important adaptability is to the varied styles of music they played whether it was the ersatz jazz pop of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass's "A Taste of Honey," or the gorgeous and sumptuous balladry of Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night." It's about musicians not driven by ego. In putting their full support behind the egos of the artists, they eagerly surrendered themselves to whatever the song demanded. They found themselves in the shadows rather than claiming (as Standing in the Shadows of Motown did) that true artistry lies in the shadows. Given the assembly line approach to their endless recording gigs, which strongly resembled the way writers and directors worked in Hollywood during the Studio Era, it wasn't all paradise. There were any number of burnouts and bad marriages as a result. Not everyone's personal life gets fulfilled here, even Tommy Tedesco's. He would suffer a stroke in 1992 which would leave him partially paralyzed until he died in 1997 of lung cancer. But Danny Tedesco in The Wrecking Crew not only gives his father his full due for a body of work left unsung, but also provides a bigger stage for shedding proper light on all the other troupers as well. In a sense, like his father, Tedesco finds his own artistry by beaming quietly in the background.

One of the most memorable scenes (among many) in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (1974) comes when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who has inherited the illegal crown from his underworld father like a sleeping sickness, discovers that his older brother Fredo (John Cazale), passed over in the family, has betrayed him. During a New Year's celebration in Cuba in 1959, just as Fidel Castro's revolution is about to throw a monkey wrench into the Mafia's plans to expand their gambling empire, Michael gives his sibling a huge kiss and then says to him, "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart." This pivotal scene provides the title to a touching short documentary on the equally short life of actor John Cazale, and speaks directly to its very subject. While the viewing public may always remember those heart-piercing words that Michael speaks to Fredo, they don't always know who John Cazale is. I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shepard, makes sure you do remember in this loving homage to a gifted actor who was something of a genius at playing men living in the shadow of others. (It originally aired on HBO and can be currently found streaming online.)

John Cazale's parts might have reflected a certain kind of lost, lonely soul, but he revealed the recesses of impacted rage with more subtlety than just about any other character actor. The obvious irony has always been that though Cazale may have portrayed the forgotten and unknown, he happened to be doing it in some of the most seminal American films of the Seventies: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather, Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978) – astoundingly the only films he would ever make. That's not lost on Shepard, but he doesn't milk it, either. With the help of actors like Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and directors Francis Coppola and Sidney Lumet (who directed Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon), plus Cazale's surviving brother, he instead fills the forty-minutes of screen time with moving tales and clips featuring a highly skilled actor who went fathoms deep inside the solitary pain of those characters he played. I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale lives up to its title by rediscovering how distinctive each performance was. Coppola talks about how Cazale used a recliner chair like a prop to reflect his resignation during his last fight with Michael. Sidney Lumet reminds us that while we didn't think Al Pacino's bank robber would kill any of the hostages in Dog Day Afternoon, we were never sure whether Cazale as his partner would. "All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life," Pacino says. "He was my acting partner." In I Knew it Was You, you discover that they became soulmates a long time back, bonding while working at Standard Oil as messengers. Soon they would live together in a communal house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when both were cast in Israel Horovitz's play, The Indian Wants the Bronx, and they both won Obie Awards (in 1967 and 1968). When Cazale appeared in Horovitz's Line, Richard Dreyfuss invited casting director Fred Roos to see the play. Looking to find an actor to play Fredo in The Godfather, Roos immediately suggested Cazale to Coppola.

John Cazale and Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II.

Like other great character actors, such as Robert Duvall, Warren Oates, J.T. Walsh and Steve Buscemi, John Cazale had a knack for creating dimensions in limited individuals. Besides Fredo, his Stan in The Conversation, who works with surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), might have been a sad sack, but he had more capacity for life in him than Hackman's Harry, who was depicted as a cipher. The Stan he portrayed in The Deer Hunter was dim and frail, but he seemed more rooted in that steel town than Robert De Niro's iconic Michael, who towered above his community. As Sal in Dog Day Afternoon, Cazale found his most demanding role playing a guy who has nothing left to lose. Sal's anxiety becomes a fuse always threatening to ignite a powder keg of violence. The comedy comes from the way Sonny (Pacino), the most desperate of amateur bank robbers, tries to keep Sal from detonating.

His lover and one-time colleague Meryl Streep comes off strongest in the picture. In part, it's because Streep appears so unguarded and still protective (in a good way) of Cazale and her feelings for him. There's a delicate warmth she reveals here that you don't often see in her. Her remembering how she stood by him in his last days (they had acted together in The Deer Hunter) when she wasn't yet a huge star (that would come later) brings out a bracing humility that is overwhelming to watch. It's also quite stirring to see how, when Cazale almost lost the role of Stan in The Deer Hunter because he had lung cancer and wasn't insurable, Robert De Niro stepped forward to pay for his insurance claim. Streep and the director also threatened to walk if he wasn't cast. You come away realizing that, for an actor who played so many loners, John Cazale had the best of friends.

Sam Rockwell makes quite an interesting observation about John Cazale in I Knew it Was You. He says that while most actors might dream of playing Michael or Sonny because of their magnetism, it's Fredo he says who makes those other performances work so strongly because "he's just so recognizably human." With that recognition comes the fact that in five huge movies filled with young actors about to become stars, John Cazale never found fame. But now when you look back, his vulnerability in each role is a burning spot glowing in the shadow of the screen.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. Tommy Tedesco used to write very educational columns in guitar player magazine and he also could be seen occasionally on Fernwood 2Nite and one the gong show as a contestant [wearing a tutu.]
    R.I.P.Tommy Tedesco!.

  2. for your viewing pleasure...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA0-SpqYYXU