First there was Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 2002 documentary about a band of soulful Detroit-based musicians—the Funk Brothers—that backed dozens of Motown artists. Then came 2008’s The Wrecking Crew, a film which highlighted a core group of L.A. studio musicians that played on some of the biggest hits of the ’60s and ’70s. In 2013, 20 Feet from Stardom gave backing singers their due… and won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in the process. Now it’s the turn of Hired Gun, Fran Strine’s tantalizing tribute to an A-list assembly of session and touring musicians hired by the likes of KISS, Pink, and Billy Joel (and how many times have you wanted to use those names in a single sentence!?).
The film dispenses with its definition early: “A hired gun is an assassin, the best available musician that gets hired to go on tour to deliver that music for that artist. Nobody’ll know who he is, but he gets the gig because he’s the elite player.” As such, Hired Gun shares a common agenda with the aforementioned films: to showcase the talents of a set of individuals who are “masters of their craft” yet who “live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight” and “whose stories have gone untold… until now.”
The decentralized performers of Hired Gun—Liberty DeVitto, Jason Hook, Russell Javors, Steve Lukather, and Rudy Sarzo to name a few—might not be household names before (or even after) you’ve seen the film, but for 90 minutes they each get their 15 minutes of fame, more or less. Hook, who serves as one of the film’s producers, has one of the most glamorous back stories—from Hilary Duff to Five Finger Death Punch literally overnight! Metallica’s Jason Newsted also tells of how he scrounged change from his friends in order to attend an audition for the band. Fifteen years later he was still playing with them. But mostly these guys don’t get the luxury of a dependable paycheck.
Speaking of guys, Hired Gun‘s cast list is large but occupies an extremely male-centric world. A couple of female performers get a brief look-in—guitarist Nita Strauss and bassist Eva Gardner—but the latter doesn’t even get to talk on camera. Headliners Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie each weigh in on what it takes to fulfill this demanding and often underappreciated role (especially by fans, when the performer in question is replacing a beloved band member, sometimes as the result of misadventure). According to Zombie, “Finding the right person for your band is almost impossible, because you’re looking for… three things. You’ve gotta find somebody who… is an excellent musician. Which… that’s the easiest thing; there’s… a million excellent musicians. Then you’ve got to find someone who’s really cool, who can stand on stage in front of, you know, 15-, 100,000 people and be amazing. That whittles it down to a smaller group. And then you gotta find someone you can stand to be around 24/7 ’cause, you know, you live with them, day in and day out. Then it shrinks down to about… here’s the three people in the music industry I can actually stand to be around so, no, that is… that is the trick.”
Alice Cooper also rhapsodizes about how a bunch of these musicians should form their own band, and director Strine gives us a couple of spontaneous jam sessions to illustrate that point, including Derek St. Holmes (the voice of Ted Nugent) vocalizing on “Just What the Doctor Ordered.”
Industry insider Strine keeps his movie fluid and involving by forever changing up his presentation and techniques. It’s very slick and very professional, much like its oddly ego-less subjects, most of whom seem genuinely in awe of the opportunities afforded them. It’s clear they love what they do. As musicians, they just want to play.
What’s next at the multiplex I wonder? Heavy Lifting: On the Road with Blur, Bon Jovi, and The Boss? You have to admit it’s probably time the lowly roadie got his day in the spotlight.
(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth