You know their riffs, even if you don’t know their names. From Billy Joel’s longtime drummer to a guitarist who has played with both Alice Cooper and Hilary Duff, the outstanding music doc “Hired Gun” from filmmaker Fran Strine shines a lot on a small — one might even say incestuous — roster of musicians who have backed up up the famous for decades, making a living, if not quite attaining stardom.
“We all know where the ‘A’ corral is, so we go for those guys first,” says Alice Cooper of the cabal of rockers who are traded like baseball players among the titans of the industry.
Furthermore, “those guys” might not even be guys at all: Mr. Cooper’s current guitarist extraordinaire, Nita Strauss, only 30 years old, appears in the doc, but she is, sadly, the only woman interviewed, thus not precisely disproving the old-boys-club nature of the profession.
One of the doc’s most fascinating recurring characters is Liberty DDeVitto, Mr. Joel’s percussionist in the early Long Island days right up until the “unpleasantness.” It was Mr. DeVitto, we learn, who convinced Mr. Joel to scrap a Jamaican riff for “Only the Good Die Young” — telling him, “the closest you’ve been to Jamaica is Jamaica, Queens” — and go with that unmistakable intro drum roll.
As with many of the other subjects, Mr. DeVitto at first waxes on the loyalty of his bandleader, who incredibly resisted a pitch from Beatles producer George Martin to produce his next record if Mr. Joel ditched his band in favor of session musicians. Such loyalty is in counterpoint to later times, after many personnel changes, when Mr. DeVitto recalls being kicked off the tour plane “in case Billy wants to nap with his feet up,” which all but ended his time as Mr. Joel’s drummer.
(Unsurprisingly, Mr. Joel, seen only in vintage film clips, is not interviewed in “Hired Gun.” Mr. DeVitto told me the two no longer speak.)
“Good people don’t stay undiscovered for very long,” opines Phil X, who has played with Kelly Clarkson, among others, but it’s staying in that small club that is the hard part. “Hired Gun” subjects like Rudy Sarzo discuss big risks such as leaving Mr. Osbourne’s band behind for the upstart Quiet Riot, a decision he doesn’t regret, especially since it turned out rather well.
The same cannot be said of all of the hired guns, who share tales of financial woe, sleeping on floors on tour, being stiffed by their bandleaders and returning from months on the road only to learn they have but a few bucks to make rent and thus must find the next gig.
And when success does finally come along, you’d think that these musical ronin, too cognizant of the lean times, would treat their own cadres better. Mostly this is true, but a notable exception is Richard Patrick, who was brought into Nine Inch Nails by none other than Trent Reznor himself as a freelance player. Mr. Patrick writes “Hey Man, Nice Shot,” which Mr. Reznor encourages him to use on his own, and the band Filter is born.
To his credit, Mr. Patrick is frank in telling of hiring his own soldiers without promising them much of anything. However, professional musicians can only live like amateurs for so long before realizing, as several members of Filter later discovered, that the peanuts he offered just weren’t worth the aggravation.
No doubt someone else was right behind to fill in.
Other fascinating vignettes include Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who played on “Beat It” but never believed it would be a hit. Mr. Lukather even vowed to run down Hollywood Blvd. nude if Michael Jackson’s song became a hit, but no mention is made on a follow-through.
And then there is Phil Buckman, bassist for the band Fuel, who is much, much, much better known to the general public for that ubiquitous commercial known in Southern California, the one for Carl’s Jr. in which Mr. Buckman, a voiceover actor, intones: “Without us, some guys would starve.”
Keep in mind, these are the professional players, the ones who have “made it.”
“Before there was Pro Tools, there were pros,” says Jay Graydon, who has backed up Steely Dan and Earth, Wind and Fire. “I gotta save this now in real time,” he says of the life of a session player. “That’s my job.”
“Billy [Joel] wrote those songs, but we came up with the beats and the guitar licks and all that kind of stuff. Hopefully people will see this.” Mr. DeVitto told The Washington Times recently, adding that old percussionist credo that any band is “only as good as its drummer.”
(“If people disagree, it’s because they play guitar or bass or piano,” he added.)
Mr. DeVitto now has his own band, The Slim Kings.
“I was successful being the hired gun to many people; I would like to be successful in a band that’s my band, like Ringo was in The Beatles,” he told me.
Another of the film’s subjects, Mr. Sarzo, informed me that becoming a “hired gun” is a fine way to break into the business. He recalls initially turning down overtures from Ozzy Osbourne to join his group, but the experience of playing with him eventually made him one of the more experienced member of his own later group, Quiet Riot.
“All the guys of my generation, we all wanted to be in a band,” Mr. Sarzo said over the phone.
When asked if he ever wanted to be the frontman, Mr. Sarzo maintains that he is satisfied with his own musical accomplishments.
“People know who I am. They know my name,” he said.
In the end, while the glory may be important, what is equally paramount is making a decent living, Mr. Sarzo said.
“You want to be compensated somehow. But [in some ways], just making that track is the compensation,” he said.
“What I get is all of us in this film have no other choice but to be musicians.”
In the end, it is that sense of professionalism, that call to make music — perhaps even to make the “stars” shine bright on stage or on record without expecting thanks in return — that drives the incredibly talented and accomplished artists seen in “Hired Gun.” Indeed, they play for pay for the biggest names in the biz, but what comes across to the viewer is the undying joy of creating music that keeps them coming back to a career that is incredibly punishing, even at the highest of levels.
It’s always about the next gig.
“Hired Gun” will play for one night only at 7:30 at the District’s Gallery Place 14, the Ballston Commons 12 in Arlington, Virginia, the Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria, Virginia, Regal Rockville Center Stadium 13 in Rockville, Maryland, and AMC Owings Mills 17 in Owings Mills, Maryland. Tickets are available at HiredGunTheFilm.com.