'Hired Gun': Film Review

HIRED GUN -Still 1-publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Vision Films
More fun for aspiring instrumentalists than casual music fans.

Fran Strine's doc listens to the unknown sidemen who make some of the world's biggest hits.

Docs like 20 Feet From Stardom have shown us how delightful it can be for music fans to hang out with the unsung performers who back up famous musicians. The best of these usually zero in on a certain scene — à la Muscle Shoals or Standing in the Shadows of Motown — exploiting a community-building narrative as a way of getting us to care about players we don't know. Fran Strine's Hired Gun, on the other hand, is scattershot, introducing instrumentalists who've played everything from heavy metal to Disney kid-pop, and rarely doing much to capture its subjects' individual quirks. As a result, it will play best with viewers who themselves aspire to this kind of work-for-hire musicianship — Guitar Player subscribers, say, who will appreciate some words of wisdom about surviving in a challenging industry.

Though its appeal for the casual music fan is limited, two sorts of audience member are especially well-served here: metal heads and devotees of Billy Joel. The latter focus, it would seem, appealed to Strine because it shows two sides of the coin for working sidemen. At the start of his career, we're told, Joel was so attached to his usual players that he turned down an opportunity to record with Beatles producer George Martin, who wanted to bring outsiders in for the sessions. But decades later, longtime drummer Liberty DeVitto laments that the megastar had grown so stingy and disloyal he was canned for asking for a raise.

Far more of the movie's interviewees played with acts like Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica and Alice Cooper. Some went from nobodies to headliners abruptly: When Metallica's bassist Cliff Burton died in 1986, Jason Newsted scraped money together from friends to fly out to audition, was hired for $500 per week and eventually got to join the band. But most were never officially part of the bands they played with, even if they played essential roles. Ted Nugent's old sideman and vocalist Derek St. Holmes recalls how fans wrongly assumed the star sang lead on hits like "Stranglehold"; others were never even credited on records, trading glory for a paycheck.

Strine's movie tries to right that wrong with copious praise, letting players brag about each other's chops and proclaiming that "before Pro Tools, there were pros." Some stars are more demanding of virtuosity than others, we're told: Of studio perfectionists Steely Dan, one interviewee says, "whether you like that band or not, you know that if [a session musician was] ever on a Steely Dan record, they're one of the baddest motherfers walkin'."

Strine recounts a couple of jackpot stories, in which a background artist pens a hit song or plays on a record he couldn't have foreseen would be a smash. But for those who missed such payoffs, the helmer gives players a chance to perform for the camera, showing their merit far from attention-hog frontmen. Here again, these sequences will play best with those used to spending hours alone trying to learn a favorite solo.

Production company: Drama Kills
Distributor: Vision Films
Director: Fran Strine
Screenwriters: Tim Calandrello, Fran Strine
Producers: Tim Calandrello, Jason Hook, Fran Strine
Executive producer: Todd Poulson
Director of photography: Gavin Fisher
Music: The Crystal Method
Editors: Tim Calandrello, Gavin Fisher

98 minutes