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 brings to light the often underappreciated backup musicians who work twice as hard as the rock stars to make their headliners look good. And more often than not they never enjoying their own time in the 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, 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 they exhibit a lot of chemistry within their group dynamics. A lot of these performances sound 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 to appreciate this documentary. What you should appreciate is that hired guns are trained in such a way that they can drop everything in their lives, pick up and play any kind of music that’s thrown at them at a moment’s notice, often performing songs with extreme proficiency when they’re only given a few days to learn them.
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 sometimes downright humiliating. Such is the case for ax-man Greg Upchurch, who was recognized by a famous rock star while painting his house to make money between gigs. 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 Joel, who 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 at grade schools, have hung up their weapons altogether. Like many docs to come out since the economic crash of 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 exists a larger background narrative about exploitation. Hired guns are often underpaid, given no credit when and if they contribute to the songwriting, and are deemed expendable even when their musicianship is valued.
The warmth and brotherhood expressed from professional to professional complicates the sharper pro-labor intent of the 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 underpaying his hired guns and the mediocre touring conditions he lets them endure, having endured similar hardships before breaking out on his own.
Hired Gun hints at a universal story being told, but 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. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining movie and it gives the viewer a good behind the stage perspective of how things operate in the corporate music world.