Netflixable: “Hired Gun” Showcases more Musicians in the Shadows

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Stick with me a minute, as this is a peek at music through the lens of a movie critic and occasional concert goer and reviewer.

There was this telling on-camera moment back in the 2008 “Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert” documentary. Yeah, that. Miley, then just a Disney Channel star and daughter of a country music one-hit wonder was rehearsing. And Billy Ray Cyrus, her father was there, and his eyes got ridiculously wide when he checked out her band.

“Man, these guys are” the very best, he said, or something to that effect as he was shaking band-members’ hands like a star-struck fan. As in “Baby girl, you have NO idea.” But Daddy knew. It’s just that Young Miss Miley, like the rest of us, didn’t know the A-list players making her music magical enough to turn her into a star.

Almost every concert video sampled on youtube has them — men and women who play in the shadows along with Pink!, Alice Cooper, Kiss or Ozzy, Billy Joel or Hilary Duff or Elton or Rihanna or even Mandy Moore.   Because yeah, they love “the music, man,” but yeah, a musician’s got to eat.

Sometimes they’re left off of record credits. Often, they’re the touring version of the “band” one hears on the LP, or vice versa. They’re seriously unheralded. They’re underpaid and regarded as replaceable. Even their label within the industry has a negative connotation. This drummer, that guitarist/bassist, they’re not IN the band. They’re just a “Hired Gun.”

Fran Strine’s documentary is in “The Wrecking Crew/Twenty Feet from Stardom” tradition, just another generation down the line from those unknown ’60s music icons. It’s an affectionate metal and pop-centric take on the foot soldiers in modern rock and pop, the players who made Michael and Mellencamp, Billy and Miley and Mandy the stars they became.

We’re reminded that Michael Jackson hired the guys from Toto to record “Thriller,” that Justin Jerrico is the guitarist who gave rock cred to Pink!’s greatest hits, that for decades, every session or touring player’s goal was to “play with Steely Dan,” and that Billy Joel might be the biggest jerk in modern music history, but that he’s got a lot of competition.

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Ray Parker Jr. was on the verge of quitting the business after years of playing for guitar for The Four Tops, Joe Cocker, Patti Labelle and Boz Scaggs and taking a brief shot at fame with Raydio. Then Ivan Reitman needs a hit song mere weeks before “Ghostbusters” was to come out, “and the rest is history.”

Session women and men step in when members of Kiss, Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osborne’s band retire, die or quit in a huff. Sometimes they stick, and sometimes they don’t.

“My friends from high school thinks I’m rich,” laughs Greg Upchurch, most recently of Three Doors Down. Half these people, they’re working odd jobs between tours, painting some more famous drummer’s house or delivering pizzas.

There’s Jason Hook, who went from guitarist for Hilary Duff to Alice Cooper to Five Finger Death Punch, and Chris Johnson, who’s played with Stevie Wonder and toured with Rihanna, Phil X and Eric Carr (replacement drumer for Kiss), Nita Strauss (Alice Cooper), David Foster, who figured out early on that the REAL money was in producing/composing and marrying somebody who could get him on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — briefly.

They tell stories, of being mistaken for Ted Nugent because you (Derek St. Holmes) sang and played rhythm guitar on his best tunes. They give frank accounts of run-ins with Trent Reznor over credit-hogging/under-paying for play in Nine Inch Nails, of getting a dream assignment to write a hit for George Benson, or being left out in the cold (literally) in Fargo by Billy Joel.

“You’re never fired. You’re just not asked to do the next thing,” says Liberty Devitto, once one of New York’s most famous drummers. He and his bandmates were with Joel for decades, until they weren’t.

Rob Zombie and Alice and Pink! talk about what they owe these players, but what’s implied in this arrangement is that the star is the star. And “reinvention” to keep yourself relevant is to be expected. Check out the number of people here with “Madonna” in their credits.

But if you’re moving on, don’t be a Billy Joel about it.

The anecdotes are, perhaps a bit less iconic (drummer Kenny Aronoff inventing the drum solo that “made” Mellencamp, in “Jack & Diane”), but they’re funnier and occasionally, more tragic than earlier docs in this genre have shared. One laid-off Joel  bandmate killed himself, and Ozzy had to replace Randy Rhoads in mid-tour because his guitarist chose the town Hank Williams died in for a little fun and games with a private plane.

And if you’ve ever wondered who it was who really turned “Thriller” into a smash or gave Kiss a new lease on life in their endless “Farewell tour,” this is the movie for you. ‘

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MPAA Rating: TV-14, profanity and toilet humor

Cast: Liberty Devitto, Alice Cooper, Pink, Billy Joel, Derek St. Holmes, Eric Carr, Kenny Aronoff, Rob Zombie

Credits:Directed by Fran Strine. A Vision Films/Sony Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:38

 

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