HomeInterviewsDirector Denny Tedesco talks new film 'Immediate Family'

Director Denny Tedesco talks new film ‘Immediate Family’

Documentary film director Denny Tedesco spent some time with 360°Sound recently to chat about his new film Immediate Family. Denny’s first film, the award-winning The Wrecking Crew, told the story of his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and the other great LA session aces who played on countless hit records in the ’50s & ’60s.

Immediate Family picks up where that story left off. It’s a film about a small band of session musicians, popularly known as The Section: guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. They’re still together, playing with Steve Postell, as Immediate Family.

It’s a story that needed to be told. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, I read these guys’ names in the liner notes of many of my favorite records by the likes of Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. They seemed to be everywhere, playing with all the top artists. So instrumental were they in establishing the “soft rock” sound, that they were often referred to as the Mellow Mafia. But there wasn’t a through-line at that time. This film tells their story.

Immediate Family is included in the outstanding collection of documentary films screening this month at DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, voted by MovieMaker magazine as one of the “top five coolest documentary film festivals in the world.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

360°Sound: This film makes me nostalgic for the 70s. The director’s decade, right?

Denny Tedesco: It’s funny, because The Wrecking Crew was the ’60s. And this one actually does have a connection for me growing up. It is my decade.

And it’s a player’s decade. The singer/songwriter thing came out of that. The freedom to express beyond the concept of hits.

That’s it! You totally nailed it. When you said it was a player’s decade, that’s exactly what that was. A lot of the music coming out was free-form, long form. Allman Brothers, stuff like that. Solos that were guitarists playing. It felt like it was more arranged in the 60s; you had to stay within a pocket.

Everybody seemed really eager to be part of the project and telling this story. What was the journey like, tracking everybody down?

It’s probably the easiest project I ever had. We had the meeting with the band [Immediate Family], and I pitched them the idea. The next day they said, ‘Well, Carole King’s in town in three weeks and she’ll do it then.’ I went, ‘uh-oh.’ I wasn’t ready for that. I quickly started reading and pulling out the old albums. It’s funny, because the liner notes give you so much detail. All you needed was [the notes], and it was, yeah that’s Danny’s solo and that’s Leland on this. That was so quick. Within six weeks we had Carole, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Phil Collins and Linda Ronstadt in the can. Really quickly. They were just so eager to tell the story and help.

How was the process different from making The Wrecking Crew?

The difference is that these guys were friends with the artists. They’re all of the same age, and they’re all kind of coming up together. Russ [Kunkel] is living in Laurel Canyon, he’s living at Mama Cass’s house. She’s his sister-in-law. So he’s meeting [Stephen] Stills and [David] Crosby and Joni Mitchell. They’re all in that same group of friends. And then they really become friends when they go on the road.

My dad [Tommy Tedesco] never went on the road. We weren’t hanging out with the Beach Boys. Dad went to work and went home. These guys went on the road with these folks for months at a time. That’s another big difference.

These guys just never stopped, and that’s also a big difference. They keep playing.

What was your approach to structure, once you had all the footage?

Basically I had a guide, because I did it already. I know the beginning, the middle and the end of all these things. The difference is, I knew the end of Wrecking Crew. I knew how their careers ended. My dad passed away; that was obviously an end. With these guys, there is no end; these guys kept playing. Versus my dad, once the ‘60s ended, his recording career fizzled out in terms of pop records. That’s when the new sound started coming in.

That was a big change in the ’70s. Now there’s more tracking, and the musicianship is much better than the bands that my father replaced. Don’t forget, when my dad’s doing this studio work in the ‘60s with the Beach Boys and Phil Spector and stuff, rock-n-roll is only like five-years old. They’re not sure what the sound is. When [The Section] comes along in the early ‘70s, it became players. It developed into a different structure.

I love that you have them play along with some of their classic parts.

That was my structure for this film, because it was my introduction to each player. I’d seen this work from Wrecking Crew hundreds of times, so I knew it was going to work. They picked their song that they’re known for. For Danny, it’s “It’s Too Late.” Which really for me, is my key song of growing up. And Danny’s solo; I’ve always known that solo.

It’s funny, because I watch people in the audiences be affected by that. They’re listening to Russ play. And it’s just a drummer playing, but there’s no music. Then they start trying to figure out what it is. And then they start listening and seeing it.

And then “Fire and Rain” slides in there.

Yeah. And it’s fun because you start listening to the music differently. For me, I’ve always heard guitar players. I can hear a guitar lick so far in the background. I can’t play an instrument, by the way. Let me clarify that. I cannot play anything. But I can hear that guitar lick. And I go, ‘Wow, listen to that,’ and my wife goes, ‘Huh?’ And that’s how I grew up listening to music. For me, it’s a natural thing.

Guitarist Danny Kortchmar seems to be the ringleader of the group. He’s so passionate.

There’s nobody more passionate than him. Seriously. He was passionate to the point where they’re like, ‘Relax Danny.’ Everybody couldn’t say enough about Danny. They couldn’t say enough about all of them. That was the coolest thing. And they’re all their own little personalities, which is so much fun.

There’s another Danny bit where Waddy’s talking about how being a solo artist wasn’t part of the prospect. You wanted to be part of a band, and you wanted your band to be the one that makes it. And Kootch nods and goes, ‘That’s right.’

I also think about James Taylor and Carole King, in this weird way none of them wanted to be the solo artist. It was ‘James Taylor and the Flying Machine.’ He didn’t want just ‘James Taylor.’ No one wants to be the headliner of any of these people, you know what I mean? Even though a few of them become the biggest headliners in the world. And Carole was so reluctant. It’s a psychological thing. A lot of therapy. We’d be all involved. 

It’s like Leland says, he was happy to be the guy in the back. Leland’s amazing. One of the greatest bass players in the world. And he says, ‘I cringe when people praise me. I cringe.’ That’s probably why he likes being a bass player, because he’s shy.

What really comes through in the film is that everybody likes each other, everybody loves each other. There’s so much support. It’s really inspiring.  Linda Ronstadt is especially fun.

Linda talking about poker is one of my favorite bits. Waddy told me about that story and it was perfect. Every time Linda laughed, she was laughing at herself. It made me smile so big. She’s so real.

Same thing with Phil Collins. It was very moving with Phil. I interviewed him on the second to the last day of that tour that he and Leland did. Phil’s in such pain. Probably the last tour he’ll ever do. You just see what these guys meant to each other for the last 50 years.

What did you like about Phil? It seems like you had a particularly nice rapport with him.

I love the twinkle in his eye. He opens up with ‘Leland who?’ Every time I see it, I crack up. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, and I still get a giggle. Don’t forget, Phil is one of the greatest drummers of our time, and he can’t say enough about these musicians.

Musicians are extraordinary. My father could listen to a guitar player on the radio and he’d go, ‘Man, that guy’s a bitch.’ That is the greatest compliment you’ll ever hear. It was like jive talk, cat talk. ‘Who’s that mother?’ I love to hear great players. There’s not much jealousy. When there’s a player, everybody bows down. That’s what these guys are; they’re players first.

They talk about being a musician like it’s a way of life, a religion.

Waddy says something near the end about retirement. ‘I never hear of anyone who retired from music who was happy.’ He’s right. And it goes back to when I was a kid listening to my father doing his seminars. He’d tell the students in these seminars at places like Berklee [College of Music], ‘You took this instrument up because you love playing guitar. You didn’t do it because you were going to make a living at it. So, you should never stop playing. Enjoy it for what it is. If you get lucky and you’re getting paid for it, great. If you can make a living at it, even better.’ For these guys, that will never stop. As long as you’re physically able to do it, you keep going.

It’s a wonderful film. Do you have any final thoughts before they cut us off here?

These films are so important. Don’t forget, you talk to a lot of these filmmakers, we haven’t found distribution yet. We need the help of everybody. It’s really about people who want to spread the word. Say, ‘Omigod, I just saw this film!’ I tell audiences now, ‘If you love the film, tell people. But if you don’t love a film, don’t tell anybody.’ That’s my motto.

Immediate Family’s first screening at DOC NYC is Tuesday 15 November.

For the last ten years, DOC NYC has screened the documentary feature that went on to win the Academy Award, as well as 24 of the last 25 Oscar-nominated documentary features.

Click here for more information on DOC NYC.

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