By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY — Hired Gun opens with a narration defining the title of the film, and we learn this is a documentary not about mercenaries and rifles, but longhaired musicians and six-strings – more importantly, the session, or stand-in, musician. The musician in question is compared to an “assassin” because “nobody will know who he is,” the narration tells us. “But he’ll get the gig because he is the elite player.”
While the idea of being an anonymous player with some of the biggest acts might be appealing to some, the documentary emphasizes the shared struggles that these hired guns experience. While they are musicians who play with machine-like precision, they rarely see any credit for their work or career longevity. Bitterly aware of this fact, they acknowledge that musical virtuosity does not always equate to lasting demand within the industry.
“Job security was my awesomeness,” one session guy, Phil X, jokes. “If I’m not great tonight, there might not be a job tomorrow,” another laments.
While one should never feel entitled to a career when entering the music industry, Hired Gun demonstrates the tragedy and heartbreak that often accompanies it. These expendable musicians, often playing with several bands at a time, only see their skillset as a job; there’s no room for messing around. Charming mistakes or creative leeway is best left to the rock stars. It’s hit the notes or hit the road.
It’s a fascinating subject, and one that hasn’t really been addressed before. Fran Strine, the director, was inspired to make the film after being “burned out” as a touring photographer for such artists as Nickelback, Staind and Dolly Parton for 17 years. Despite this, his photography background is evident throughout the film, and the film certainly benefits from it; the cinematography is top-notch. The idea was born while he was speaking with Jason Hook, whose shredding abilities on the guitar are featured prominently throughout the documentary as a hired gun for Alice Cooper, Hilary Duff (less shredding) and the current guitarist for Five Finger Death Punch (lots of shredding).
If there’s a common thread among all successful musicians with lasting careers, no one knows what it is. However, it’s clear after watching this documentary that each of the talented musicians featured are incredibly humble, laidback and proud of their accomplishments; there’s no hint of ego here. Strine agreed, stating that “that’s why these guys still work today.” In his attempt to get to the “core of these musicians’ lives and stories… we struck a chord and went beyond ‘Behind the Music’ and really exposed the good, the bad and the ugly side of this business.”
He adds: “I think the audience will never look at the stage the same again.”
This is a wonderfully made documentary, with high production values and fantastic interviews ranging from Alice Cooper to Rob Zombie to Ray Parker Jr. Its themes echoed last year’s CIFF documentary, The Glamour and the Squalor, which also focused on the unsung heroes behind several large rock bands. Strine says, “As a music lover myself, I always wanted to take a look behind the curtain and hear the essence of these players’ stories and the stuff you weren’t supposed to hear about.
“I think most audiences will find with Hired Gun, stories that will make you sit up and see these musicians in a new light.”
Hired Gun screens as part of the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 30 (licensed screening) at the Globe Cinema and Oct. 2 at Cineplex Eau Claire.AB, Alberta, Calgary International Film Festival, CIFF, CIFF 2016, Cineplex Eau Claire, Globe Cinema, Hired Gun, Hired Gun documentary, musical stand-ins, session musicians