Documentary Hired Gun Puts the World's Best Backing Musicians in the Spotlight
Stars of the new documentary Hired Gun include the film's co-producer Jason Hook, left, along with Rudy Sarzo, Kenny Aronoff, Derek St. Holmes, Phil X and Liberty DeVitto.
They perform in the shadows. They’re often called out at the last minute when an artist needs to put a hot band together for an album or a tour. Whether you know their names or not, you hear them on the radio every day. They’ve played on countless albums, often without credit, and with the collapse of the music business, we see them more than ever in the live arena.
They are music's hired guns, the studio players and touring musicians who toil anonymously behind pop and rock's biggest names. Now, with a new documentary — called, naturally, Hired Gun — many of these unknown soldiers are finally getting their due. The film will be screened in multiple theaters nationally — including more than a dozen in the L.A. area — for one night only, Thursday, June 29.
A hired gun can back up some of the biggest artists in the biz, tour the world and establish his reputation as a hot-shit musician. But there are also considerable downsides — such as the pay, which can often be minuscule, and the fact that you can be as disposable as toilet paper.
Hired Gun includes interviews with ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, former Billy Joel drummer Liberty DeVitto, Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy, Dio, Quiet Riot) and Five Finger Death Punch guitarist Jason Hook, who was not only a sideman for Alice Cooper and Hillary Duff but is also an investor in the film as well.
Hired Gun is the brainchild of Fran Strine, who was a videographer for many years. It was while he was on the road with Five Finger Death Punch that he came up with the idea of making a documentary.
On a bus traveling through Singapore, Hook and Strine batted ideas back and forth. “We were talking about how much we loved documentaries,” Hook says. “We loved Grizzly Man, we had a lot of favorite films in common, and Fran was jonesing to make a new one. I said, ‘What if I pay for it? What if we get together and do it as a team?’”
The idea of doing a documentary on hired guns “immediately struck a nerve with me,” Strine says. “I had seen documentaries like The Wrecking Crew and 20 Feet From Stardom, so I was kinda familiar with the concept, but I wanted to take it a step further.”
Both Hook and Strine wanted to make a movie with emotional impact, one that went much deeper than the usual Behind the Music–style format. “For me, the music is just the background,” Strine says. “I love stories, and I love to be moved by them. I really wanted to expose a nerve and show what these guys go through.”
In making Hired Gun, Hook and Strine conducted more than 300 hours of interviews with 55 musicians. The first musician interviewed for the project was drummer DeVitto, and it was just the first of many dark closets that the filmmakers opened. Any musician who’s been around long enough has heard their share of horror stories, but Hook says, “Holy shit, did we ever get blindsided with a lot of stuff with this movie.”
In fact, DeVitto was interviewed twice for the film, because the first interview was so volatile, and he unloaded so much baggage from the past, “He probably would have had a lawsuit on his hands if I’d put it out,” Strine says. “I told him, ‘I want to save you and interview you again,’ so we went back up to Brooklyn, narrowed it down, and got his story the way he wanted to tell it, where it wasn’t so over-the-top.”
Liberty DeVitto as seen in Hired Gun
For his part, Hook is among the countless musicians who initially didn’t want to be a sideman but fell into it anyway. He came to L.A. from Canada with $200 in his pockets, hoping to make it, and lived in a beat-up car by the beach.
“The A dream is to be an artist that sells millions of albums and everybody loves you,” Hook says. “But if you can’t connect to the A dream, the B dream is, ‘Well, I still love to play and I want to get paid a bunch of money to do it. Nobody likes what I create on my own, but I can lend my talent to another artist.' I think a lot of these players are grateful to still be in the arts, and if you can make a great living, or a decent living, just playing your instrument, you’re already ahead of 95 percent of musicians out there.”
While Hook has played with bubble-gum artists such as Hilary Duff and Mandy Moore, he didn’t feel he was selling his soul. And even when you’re backing up a pop artist, you never know who’s in the audience watching. It was playing with Duff that brought Hook to the attention of Alice Cooper, who then hired him for his touring band without an audition.
Hook also learned the hard way how disposable a hired gun can be when Duff fired the entire band via email. “That’s when I realized the gig can get yanked out beneath your feet,” Hook says. “Between Hilary Duff and Alice Cooper, I was scrambling to find another job.”
More of the many hired guns featured in the film: Phil Buckman, left, Michael Fish Herring, Brad Gillis, Glen Sobel, Nita Strauss, Phil Chen, Eva Gardner, Mark Schulman, Paul Bushnell
While some players might dismiss being a hired gun as hackwork, after Strine and Hook began screening their documentary, younger musicians started hitting them up, asking how they could get a gig like this. Yet as Strine puts it, “The chances of somebody getting one of these gigs is like getting struck by lightning.”
If a musician dreams of being a hired gun, the movie shows that he must be versatile and cover a wide range of styles. Many are schooled musicians who learned their trade in places like Berklee and the Musicians Institute.
Hired Gun also shows that getting the gig doesn’t just come down to musical ability. Having the right personality, being able to “make the hang,” is crucial. “Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie have had better guitar players in their bands [in the past], but it’s all about the hang,” Strine says. “These stars want people to come in and have it be seamless.”
You also need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice when opportunity knocks. “Richie Sambora wasn’t showing up to a gig in Canada,” Strine says. “Bon Jovi remembered seeing a video of Phil X and said, ‘Somebody get that guy’s number, see if he can learn the songs on the plane over.’ He did, and that’s how he got the gig.”
When Ozzy Osbourne was 10 days away from launching a tour and needed a bassist in a hurry, Rudy Sarzo got the job on the recommendation of his old friend, the late, great Randy Rhoads. “Randy started my career,” Sarzo says. “I had no track record before that, and Ozzy and Sharon took a chance on me.”
Another hard reality of being a hired gun is that many don’t make anywhere near as much money as you’d think. Before Jason Newsted officially became a full member of Metallica, he told Strine, the band was paying him $500 a week. As Strine says, “I hear horror stories about some of these guys where the drum techs make more than they do.”
Still, a veteran hired gun such as Sarzo likes his role as a sideman, and has always enjoyed the variety of musicians he’s played with over the years. “I’ve talked to guys who’ve only been in one band — that’s all they’re known for and that’s all they know, and sometimes they miss that freedom of playing with other people,” Sarzo says.
In several moments of the film, a number of the featured hired guns get together and jam, which was not an easy feat to coordinate. “None of these guys are ever off at the same time, ever,” Strine says. But they all happened to be in town for the National Association of Music Merchants convention (NAMM), and once they all got in the same room and played, “It was a perfect storm of awesomeness.”
With Hired Gun, Strine and Hook hoped to make a movie that would appeal to a wide variety of people, not just musicians. “I was very specific about not wanting to target just musicians,” Hook says. “We shared the vision that this has to be entertaining to the public.” Indeed, Sarzo attended one screening where he says, “There were a few millennials there, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much the younger generation enjoyed it, and how positive the response was.”
“I hope this movie is a learning experience for people,” Strine says. “When they see an artist like Billy Joel or Pink, I hope they’ll look at these players onstage with them, show them some respect and cheer for them as well.”
A special one-night screening event for Hired Gun takes place Thursday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. at AMC Century City 15, AMC Universal CityWalk 19 and other theaters throughout Los Angeles and around the country. More locations and ticket info here.
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