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Movie Review: ‘The Wrecking Crew’

Nostalgia trips are fun, but when they intersect with genius, virtuosity and genuine revelatory insight, they take viewers to a higher place. “The Wrecking Crew,” Denny Tedesco’s engrossing documentary about a legendary collection of Los Angeles session musicians, may ostensibly pay homage to individuals otherwise lost to history — including the filmmaker’s own father, Tommy, one of the Wrecking Crew’s most revered members. But it also raises potent questions about discipline, professionalism, authorial signature and the euphoria of being in the right place at the right time, with the chops to ride out a perfect, if fleeting, pop cultural wave.

“The Wrecking Crew” begins with the group’s most famous recording session: Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys album that galvanized the musical world when it came out in 1966. Although Wilson’s bandmates came in late to lay down their vocal tracks, it was very much Wilson’s own conceptual work, executed to perfection by the Wreckers — anonymous yeoman (and yeowoman) musicians who trained during the 1940s and 1950s and honed their craft playing television themes and movie scores, jingles and incidental music. “They were the ones,” Wilson recalls, “with all the spirit and know-how.”

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Working with a roster of talent ranging from Wilson and Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector to Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra and Sonny and Cher, the Wrecking Crew provided the riffs, licks and spontaneous flourishes that became the iconic sounds of a generation. What’s more, they were often the real, uncredited instrumentalists on other groups’ records — not just marketing gimmicks like the Monkees and the Patridge Family, but such respected bands as the Byrds and Simon and Garfunkel.

Tedesco includes lots of terrific vintage studio footage, as well as later interviews with the stars they worked with and Wreckers who became stars, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. Like such films as “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “The Wrecking Crew” succeeds as important cultural history. But it’s also deeply personal for Tedesco, who explores how the demanding job of being L.A.’s No. 1 session cats affected not just his father’s personal life, but the lives of such colleagues as Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye.

Legend has it that the Wrecking Crew got its name because when they came on the scene, some old-guard cats thought they’d ruin the music business. Far from it. But the business might have ruined them: The era of the singer-songwriter — as well as the advent of synthesizers, drum machines and sampling — eventually put the Wreckers virtually out of business. But as songwriter Jimmy Webb notes, they represented a singular, momentary bubble — and while it floated, there was magic in it.

★ ★ ★

PG. Contains brief profanity, thematic elements and smoking. 101 minutes.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST-SELLERS -  04.12.15

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Publishers weekly best-sellers for week ending April 12:


HARDCOVER FICTION

1. “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)

2. “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

3. “The Stranger” by Harlan Coben (Dutton)

4. “Hot Pursuit” by Stuart Woods (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

5. “Chasing Sunsets” by Karen Kingsbury (Howard Books)

6. “NYPD Red 3” by James Patterson and Marshal Karp (Little, Brown)

7. “Miracle at Augusta” by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge (Little, Brown)

8. “The Patriot Threat” by Steve Barry (Minotaur)

9. “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen (Spiegel & Grau)

10. “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press)

11. “The Shadows” by J.R. Ward (NAL)

12. “Falling In Love” by Donna Leon (Grove/Atlantic)

13. “A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler (Knopf)

14. “Last One Home” by Debbie Macomber (Ballantine)

15. “Blood on Snow” by Jo Nesbo (Knopf)


HARDCOVER NONFICTION

1. “Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: The Real West” by Bill O’Reilly and David Fisher (Henry Holt and Co.)

2. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up” by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed)

3. “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson (Crown)

4. “Franklin Barbecue” by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay (Ten Speed)

5. “The Residence” by Kate Anderson Brower (Harper)

6. “Get What’s Yours” by Laurence Kotlikoff, Philip Moeller and Paul Solman (Simon & Schuster)

7. “Work Rules!“ by Laszlo Bock (Hachette/Twelve)

8. “Do Over” by Jon Acuff (Penguin/Portfolio)

9. “The Blue Zones Solution” by Dan Buettner (National Geographic)

10. “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan)

11. “Trisha’s Table” by Trisha Yearwood (Clarkson Potter)

12. “A Curious Mind” by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman (Simon & Schuster)

13. “Food52 Genius Recipes” by Kristen Miglore (Ten Speed)

14. “A Fine Romance” by Candace Bergen (Simon & Schuster)

15. “Going Off Script” by Giulana Rancic (Crown Archetype)


MASS MARKET PAPERBACKS

1. “Field of Prey” by John Sandford (Berkely)

2. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Mary Higgins Clark (S&S/Pocket)

3. “The Longest Ride” (movie tie-in) by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing)

4. “Blossom Street Brides” by Debbie Macomber (Ballantine)

5. “Natchez Burning” by Greg Iles (Harper)

6. “Private Down Under” by James Patterson and Michael White (Vision)

7. “Cut and Thrust” by Stuart Woods (Signet)

8. “Tom Clancy: Support and Defend” by Mark Greany (Berkley)

9. “Breath of Scandal” by Sandra Brown (Grand Central Publishing)

10. “Tuesday’s Child” by Fern Michaels (Kensington/Zebra)

11. “The Beekeeper’s Ball” by Susan Wiggs (Mira)

12. “Ready for Marriage” by Debbie Macomber (Harlequin)

13. “Sweet Salt Air” by Barbara Delinsky (St. Martin’s)

14. “MacCallister Kingdom Come” by William W. Johnstone (Pinnacle)

15. “The Target” by David Baldacci (Vision)


TRADE PAPERBACKS

1. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown)

2. “American Sniper” (movie tie-in) by Chris Kyle (William Morrow)

3. “The Escape” by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing)

4. “Burn” by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge (Grand Central Publishing)

5. “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell (LB/Back Bay)

6. “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarty (Berkley)

7. “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown (Penguin Press)

8. “Never Too Late” by Robyn Carr (Mira)

9. “The Longest Ride” by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing)

10. “I Hate Myselfie” by Shane Dawson (Atria/Keywords)

11. “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman (Moody/Northfield)

12. “10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse” by JJ Smith (Atria)

13. “The Burning Room” by Michael Connelly (Grand Central Publishing)

14. “The Collector” by Nora Roberts (Berkley)

15. “Breath of Scandal” by Sandra Brown (Grand Central Publishing)

Movie Review: ‘Merchants of Doubt’

“Merchants of Doubt,” a documentary by Robert Kenner, takes up where the 2006 global warming tutorial “An Inconvenient Truth” left off, probing the dubious annals of climate-change denial and the unholy alliance between corporations, partisan politics, pseudo-science and marketing that has given it traction despite clear scientific evidence and consensus.

As he did with his 2008 film “Food, Inc.,” Kenner lures viewers in with a brisk, bold visual look and engaging narrative techniques — in this case, beginning with a magician who, while explaining the art of misdirection and legerdemain, adds that at least he and his brethren are “honest liars.” The filmmaker neatly juxtaposes that observation with the pundits, proxies and front organizations he’s investigating: out-and-out con men whose dark arts, he maintains, possess no such charm or redeeming social value. (“Merchants of Doubt” is inspired by the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.)

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Kenner traces the roots of their deception to the 1950s and early ’60s, when DDT manufacturers and the tobacco industry began pushing back their critics by falsely insisting that no consensus existed regarding the harmfulness of their products. With the help of such often-controversial public relations companies as Hill & Knowlton, these campaigns successfully passed as fact-based hard news, the invaluable “other side of the story” that an unquestioning press was eager to amplify in the name of fairness and balance.

It’s no surprise that, nearly half a century later, the playbook invented by Big Tobacco and perfected by food and chemical companies should be exploited by energy firms chary of government carbon regulation. But what’s disheartening about “Merchants of Doubt” is that the strategy still works so effectively, especially in a hyper-partisan, intellectually lazy, spin-addicted 24-7 news cycle.

Even more sobering is how tribal fealty trumps objective reality. Nowhere is that more evident than when a global warming denier, former U.S. congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, changes his mind, only to be faced with ignominy and the outrage of his fellow Republicans. When “Merchants of Doubt” isn’t making you mad, it makes you very simply, and overwhelmingly, sad.

★ ★ ★

PG-13. Contains brief strong profanity. 96 minutes.

Book Review: ‘DELICIOUS FOODS’

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I barely caught my breath from reading T. Geronimo Johnson’s “Welcome to Braggsville” before I plunged into James Hannaham’s “Delicious Foods,” another sensational new novel about the tenacity of racism and its bizarre permutations. These two African American men — both in their mid-40s, both on their second novel — bounce off the page with the sharpest, wittiest, most unsettling cultural criticism I’ve read in years.

Johnson, whose novel I reviewed last month, is the master ironist, with an acrobatic style that will give you vertigo. But Hannaham, a former editor at Salon, is an even more propulsive storyteller. In the opening lines of “Delicious Foods,” you hear an author determined to make you put down your iPhone, shut up and listen:

“After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists.”

Shocking, macabre and surely not possible, right? — the whole story speeds through the dark like this. Hannaham repeatedly thrusts us into ghastly situations, only to circle back later with explanations when we’re agitated into a fit of curiosity. We won’t put our hands on what happened to Eddie for hundreds of pages, but the tale leading up to his bloody night on the road never takes its foot off the gas.

This is, for all its weirdness, an archetypal tale of American struggle. Hannaham immediately draws us back to the story of Eddie’s parents, Nat and Darlene, bright, ambitious folks trying to grow their lives in the toxic soil of Louisiana. His father starts a grocery store “in the wrongest part of a town made of wrong parts.” In his spare time, he speaks out against David Duke and his shadow Klansmen, and he works hard to register discouraged neighbors to vote. He feels as though he’s helping people take “the first step toward shedding their perpetual despair,” but he fails to realize that he’s in a “chess game he could never win, considering how many moves ahead his opponents were already thinking.”

In swift, startling scenes, Hannaham makes visible the ornate prison of racism that constricts the spirits of ordinary people and crushes the spirits of extraordinary ones. “In Louisiana,” he writes, “a Negro could find a igloo faster than justice.” There are violent goons in these pages, of course, but the larger challenge, so strikingly depicted, is the climate of justified fear and a legal system that shows little interest in crimes against blacks. One of those crimes finally overwhelms Darlene’s determined positive thinking and prods her, then shoves her, into addiction and prostitution.

Compelling as this tragedy is, the novel warps into something more surreal when Eddie’s mother gets lured into working as a fruit and vegetable picker at a farm called Delicious Foods. If not for a few stray references to cars, phones and computers, this hellhole would seem rooted in the antebellum South. These farmworkers — inmates, essentially — don’t know what county or even what state they’re in. They’re boarded in a windowless room filled with chickens and rats. They’re threatened and beaten into submission, futilely trying to earn more than they’re being charged each day for food and crack. Workers who suffer broken bones use sticks as splints. Workers who run away — or misbehave — get eaten by alligators. This can’t be slavery, they keep telling each other as they sink further into debt, because slaves didn’t get paid.

The strangeness of this sadistic place, its sense of being out of time and out of all moral order, is reminiscent of Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World.” The owners of Delicious Foods, a grotesque and sickly white couple up at the big house, hover like a pair of ghosts from the mid-19th century. But Hannaham is writing about labor crimes that persist, that make possible the luscious heaps of glowing peaches at our neighborhood grocery store, where we proudly recycle a bag to save the environment. “Sometime Darlene took off one of her gloves and put her fingers up on the sticky watermelon skins,” Hannaham writes in the rich dialect that he shifts in and out of. “She deliberately leaving fingerprints, hoping somebody gonna dust that damn melon for evidence and let her son know where she at.”

But, of course, that’s absurd: We couldn’t care less who picks our fruit. “Folks from America and Canada and even farther be dropping them Sugar Babies and Golden Crowns on they Italian marble counters; blond children be biting down on that juicy red flesh, letting the sweetness ooze and dribble over they tongue and out the corner of they mouth.”

And yet this isn’t “The Jungle” for modern agricultural workers; there’s nothing polemic about “Delicious Foods” and its sly peek at a backwater farm without unions or labor laws. Hannaham is interested, instead, in the pathology of despair that festers in a racist culture. Darlene doesn’t blame white thugs for their violence because that’s simply what white thugs do, the same way lions hunt gazelles. Infected with the delirium of positive thinking, she can’t free herself from the misimpression that she’s to blame for her own precipitous descent — a fallacy reinforced by America’s mythology of self-reliance.

I’ve held off on the best part, though, because I’m nervous it’ll strike you as gimmicky or repellently experimental. But the narcotic high from this novel comes from alternating chapters narrated in the disembodied voice of crack cocaine itself. In this fantastically creative performance, it’s tempting to see the influence of Hannaham’s work with the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service, which he co-founded in New York. Sassy and funny, infinitely patient and tenacious, Scotty — as crack refers to itself — is Darlene’s potty-mouth best friend. “Not to be egotistical or nothing,” Scotty vamps, “but I am irresistible.”

Crack loyally stands by Darlene and comforts her when no one else will. “Judging folks ain’t my bag,” Scotty says magnanimously. Hannaham has captured the saucy attitude of a cheap, seductive drug that encourages even as it enervates, always winding its victims up for another hit, insisting they’ll never be free, don’t even want to be free.

There is freedom, though, hovering at the conclusion of this insightful and ultimately tender novel. It’s not easily won or guaranteed to stick around, but Hannaham allows that it’s possible, despite the grueling ordeal he draws these characters — and us — through. “Delicious Foods” may be the most sarcastic title of the year, but you will devour this book.

DELICIOUS FOODS

By James Hannaham

Little, Brown. 367 pp. $26

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