Review by Paul Preston
Hired Gun is a movie that champions the little-known rock star. You know John Mellencamp, but do you know Kenny Aronoff? You love Bon Jovi, but do you know Phil X? You’ve rocked out to Vince Neil, but do you know Jason Hook? Aronoff, Phil X and Hook (and all the other musicians featured in this documentary) are crazy-accomplished and get their much-deserved moment in the spotlight in this doc. Hook is one of the film’s producers and he and director Fran Strine get just the right take on the working musician’s lifestyle from their testimonials and archive footage.
The biggest win the movie pulls off is bringing together the hired guns for a studio jam session that the film goes back to routinely. Here, they play their f-ing faces off to a top-notch sound mix and great photography. They look like the rock gods they are and the jam showers them with undeniable credibility. The studio jam also includes Billy Joel drummer Liberty Devitto, Derek St. Holmes (from Ted Nugent’s band), Nita Strauss (from Alice Cooper’s band) and more.
If you follow rock and roll like I do, you know musicians always came in and out of bands like Steely Dan ‘cause Donald Fagen and Walter Becker always want to work with the best, and Hired Gun has stories about that. But the film purports to have “The untold stories behind your favorite musicians” and they don’t lie. Revealing info on songs like Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold”, how Filter was formed and the whereabouts of some of their members and Phil X’s first night filling in for Richie Sambora keep the movie’s narrative popping. They even get Ray Parker, Jr. to talk about Ivan Reitman’s role in writing “Ghostbusters”, and who knew Parker was a hired gun for Aretha Franklin, Barry White, Stevie Wonder and more before his mega-hit made him a star?
Parker, Jr. is an example of the wise choice the filmmakers made in selecting their participants. The movie is rock-heavy, but there’s ample time given to other music styles, as the musicians behind Pink (Mark Schulman, Justin Derrico) and Rihanna (Chris Johnson) are also profiled, along with David Foster, who was a studio keyboardist before hits with Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago made him a Grammy winner. Even tatted-up with spiked hair producer/guitarist Jason Hook played with Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff before he formed the complete-opposite-in-name-and-deed band Five Finger Death Punch. Celeb testimonials litter the film, too, and the guy who comes off the best, looking like the godfather of rock and breeding ground for outstanding talent, is Alice Cooper, who hired Hook after seeing him at a Hilary Duff show. He was there looking for talent. Alice Cooper actually got even cooler by going to a Hilary Duff concert. Steve Vai, Rob Zombie, Steve Lukather and more also talk shop in the film.
Hired Gun reminded me of The Wrecking Crew, another great music doc about the studio musicians of a generation before who were behind albums like Pet Sounds. But in their case, they often played together and were hired as a group (to where they were named The Wrecking Crew). The hired guns seem to go it alone and their accounts of risk, failure and reward are all equally interesting. In fact, Devitto’s roller coaster ride with Billy Joel did not end well, to where his hopeful tone towards the end is something remarkable.
Hired Gun is a stylish, often funny and always music-filled night that is the latest offering from Fathom Events, so you have one shot at this in the theater where that studio jam session will blow you away – June 29th (in L.A., it plays in a handful of theaters at 7:30PM). No doubt it will end up on a streaming service afterwards, but the rock concert feel of the original and archive footage is to be experienced on the big screen.
And if you need to be further impressed by the subjects of Hired Gun, just check out Kenny Aronoff’s discography HERE. The sheer volume of musicians who consider him a go-to, entertaining-as-hell drummer is insane. Good news, he’s an entertaining-as-hell interview, too.