Director Danny Tedesco previously scored a hit among music fans with his 2008 film “The Wrecking Crew,” a documentary about the battalion of 1960s studio musicians whose names were little known even among the cognoscenti, until these unknown soldiers started to quietly get their due decades later. Although it took another 15 years after that film to come to fruition, Tedesco had an easy go-to for an unofficial sequel. “Immediate Family” focuses on a smaller cadre of players that soon came to dominate the L.A. recording scene and who were, for a time, known collectively as the Section. One thing the earlier movie had that this one doesn’t was a sense of injustice corrected, because let’s face it — in the 1970s, everybody knew their names.
Well, let’s not exaggerate — maybe not quite everyone was devoted to fondling LP packaging and devouring it for information, even in the physical media era. But with producers like Lou Adler and Peter Asher and artists like James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt suddenly putting players’ names on inner sleeves for pretty much the first time, it was impossible to do even a brief scan of album art and not notice the same names recurring again and again: drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar and guitarists Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel. If recognition has not exactly been deferred for these four, “Immediate Family” doesn’t need a redemption narrative to serve as a 100-minute-strong pleasure delivery system for anyone who has residual fondness for the golden age of west coast singer-songwriters. Fans of classic records from “Tapestry” to “Running on Empty” and beyond should find plenty of satisfaction in putting a face to the liner-notes names. (Or a beard to the name, at least, in the case of the very facially hirsute Sklar).
All narrative threads aside, some of the best bits of the movie just come when Tedesco captures these four guys with headphones on, playing along with some of the most famous singles they performed on, often fading the full soundtrack in only after we’ve had a chance to hear the isolated part. What’s interesting is that sometimes the riffs and licks are immediately recognizable out of context, but in other instances they seem incongruous alongside the finished classic even when you hear them merge. Such is the mystery of great rhythm tracks, which can leap to the forefront of your consciousness, but typically aren’t meant to announce themselves.
When Kunkel drums along with Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” it recreates a part so subliminal doesn’t seem to jibe with what we remember about the track at all — until it gets to his emphatic tom-tom fills on the coda, at which point you go, “Oh, of course.” But when Sklar plays the bass part for Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face,” you can probably name that tune in five seconds. Solos, of course, are their own thing. Kortchmar, talking about his guitar lead on King’s “It’s Too Late” from ’71, says, “I’m glad I didn’t have another shot at that solo because I would have pissed my pants, realizing that everyone was gonna hear it. I didn’t know that I was gonna be listening to it in every supermarket, every drug store — forever.”
The story of how these guys met and coalesced in the ‘70s — sometimes playing as a unit, sometimes intermingling in different configurations with other studio cats — isn’t inherently a fascinating one, on paper. So it’s to the credit of not just Tedesco but editors Justin Williams, Chris A. Peterson and Ryan Ninnerly that “Immediate Family” keeps hustling along like a soft-rock freight train, relying not just on the then-and-now chemistry between the four core players but also on our eagerness to jump with them to the next celebrity-session story. Warren Zevon isn’t around to tell stories anymore, but we do get a good one anyway about how the Wachtel-driven “Werewolves of London” went through 60-plus grueling, all-night takes before somebody noticed they nailed it back on the second try. (Now there’s a tale as old as time.)
Wachtel later confirms something you might have long suspected: that they sometimes came up with these parts in the studio without thinking about how tiring they might be to recreate on the road — as was the case with the simple but exhausting riff that opens Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” which she liked so much that she would sometimes leave the guitarist alone to repeat it for several minutes before coming on stage. (“There is nobody that plays eighth notes better than Waddy Wachtel,” says producer Val Garay, in the kind of inside-baseball aside the movie excels in.)
Initially, the quartet’s personalities can blend together a bit, in their humble assessments of their own prowess, or grateful submission to the artists who put them on the map. “My mantra is, everything is etched in mud,” says Sklar, talking about his malleable unwillingness to experiment until landing on whatever the person on the front cover needs. Their shared niceness is a testimony to agreeable guys getting ahead, but still, it’s a bit of a relief when Carole King is talking about egolessness and Kortchmar contradicts her, pointing out he’s got a huge one.
Indeed, Asher describes the guitarist — who started shifting to production and writing in the ‘80s — as “one of the most opinionated people I ever met,” and Kootch talks about his extremely fruitful but necessarily time-limited collaboration with Don Henley in the ‘80s, when “I got fired three or four times over the course of the three albums we made.” (Henley graciously shows up on camera to sing Kortchmar’s praises, despite their run-ins.) These are quintessential SoCal players, but it’s fun to see how at least one of them never got some of that New York City irascibility out of his system.
It’s a happy-go-lucky movie, so the film doesn’t dwell as much as it might have on the end of an era. The onset of MTV, DX7s and drum machines — and even the possible “end of rock ‘n’ roll” — is ominously invoked for a minute, without quite letting us know how personally the guys took it as a new guard of digital hitmakers swept the L.A. sound out the door. (Obviously, they still work, as anyone who just saw Wachtel pass through town on Nicks’ solo tour as her eternal right-hand man can attest.)
There’s a built-in, well-merited feel-good ending, in any case, as the late 2010s found the four forming a new band with next-gen guitarist Steve Postell, under the name Immediate Family. Seeing guys in their mid-70s start it up again, 45 years after their friend Jackson warned that everybody was running on empty, is a nice grace note to the ultimate liner-note movie.