SXSW Film Review – Hired Gun
As anybody with a liberal arts degree will tell you these days, it’s tough to be a freelancer. Job security is more and more becoming a fleeting indulgence and those looking to survive on their craft alone are met with viciously fluctuating economic circumstances that can either make it rain or dry in drought. These themes are explored in Fran Strine’s Hired Gun, an entertaining rock documentary that tells the multiple stories of highly-skilled temp musicians who are hired to fill out the lineup of famous touring bands until the day they’re deemed no longer useful.
Like 2014’s Academy Award winning 20 Feet From Stardom, this doc celebrates and bring to light the often underappreciated backup musicians who work twice as hard as the rock stars to make their headliners look good, while never enjoying their own time in spotlight. Key interview subjects include Liberty DeVitto who drummed for Billy Joel for many decades, ex Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot and Jason Hook who played guitar for a diverse set of musicians that include Alice Cooper, Mandy Moore, Motley Crue, Hilary Duff and his current heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch.
In between the all of interviews and life-stories being told we are treated to a number of performances from arranged super-groups comprised entirely of these notable side-players. Unsurprisingly they all seem to know and like each other and exhibit a lot of chemistry in their group dynamics. A lot of it sounds like practice room jam sessions and in some cases the playing is so noodly and showy that it quickly devolves into Spinal Tap parody, but it’s clear that these musicians have a striking command of their instruments and a commendable virtuosity in their playing. You don’t have to appreciate the film’s music or even the way the subject’s play it but you should be able to appreciate that hired guns are trained in such a way that they are expected to drop everything, pick up and play any kind of music at a moments notice and perform songs they are only given a few days to learn with extreme proficiency.
Though most of these musicians seem to love their line of work, there’re many sob stories littered in the narrative to drive home the notion that this unstable career choice is at best humbling and someties downright humiliation. Such is the case for ax-man Greg Upchurch who was recognized by a famous rock star while painting his house between gigs after his money ran out before the phone rang for the next tour. Liberty DeVitto managed to stay with Billy Joel for many years, outlasting the original lineup of Joel’s backing band before slowly getting iced out by a man he considered a friend and colleague.
While many other hired guns continue to find work through networking within the music industry, some like Liberty, who now teaches music in grade schools, have hung up their weapons all together. Like many docs to come out since 2008, Strine is telling a story about the haves and have-nots and underneath all of the glitz and glam of the hard-rock lifestyle, there exist a larger background narrative about exploitation. Hired gun’s are often underpaid, given no credit when and if they contribute to songwriting and are deemed expendable even when their musicianship is valued. With that said the film never fully commits to its own politics, largely because Strine brings on the likes of Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper and Pink to help tell these musician’s stories. The warmth and brotherhood expressed through the film from professional to professional complicates the sharper intent of the larger story being told – and that’s okay. Ex-Nine Inch Nails guitar tech turned Filter lead singer Richard Patrick doesn’t come off very well though, as he brags about how low he pays his hired guns and the mediocre touring conditions he lets them endure, having endured similar hardships before breaking out on his own.
Hired Gun is an entertaining movie and gives a good behind the stage view of how things operate in the corporate music world and it serves it’s purpose as an adequate rock-doc. While it hints at a universal story being told, the film’s tendencies to slip back into the comfort of it’s VH1-ready, Hard Rock Cafe aesthetics sometimes softens the edges of what might have been a little more pointed in its critique of the dog-eat-dog nature of the music business.