Do you get chills when you listen to the guitar solo on Steely Dan’s Iconic song “Peg?” How about those awesome drum beats on any of a number of Billy Joel tunes? In “Hired Gun,” local filmmaker Fran Strine’s new documentary, those often-invisible musicians are given their moment in the sun.
“Hired Gun” tells the stories of the session musicians who work, sometimes for low pay, often for little if any recognition, in the Los Angeles and New York music scenes. The film makes its West Coast Premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse, as part of the Noise Pop Film Festival, on February 16th.
Strine points his camera at the musicians and lets them share their stories. The result is an insightful look inside a profession which might look exciting and glamorous from the audience’s vantage point; In truth, session work is hard and offers zero job security. The musicians do it because they have to. The need to play comes from a place deep within. Many of the film’s interviewees recall their childhoods: that first guitar, first piano, first drum set. They speak of forming bands with other neighborhood kids, often spending entire days jamming. Those early days are but a dress rehearsal for the years to come.
They may not be stars, but they’re doing the work they love. “Every studio musician wants to be a studio musician,” says Jay Graydon, the guitarist on “Peg.” “This is as good as it gets”.
Not all the stories have happy endings. When Billy Joel inexplicably fired his back-up band in 1989, bassist Doug Stegmeyer floundered for several years; he committed suicide in 1995 at age 43. Joel drummer Liberty DeVitto speaks of his childhood friend with fondness and profound sadness, pointing out that session musicians cannot afford to make mistakes — there are plenty of people waiting in the wings with their eyes on your job.
“If you’re not great tonight you may lose the gig tomorrow,” DeVitto says.
For some, the constant struggle to stay at the top of their game can be too much. After playing in an obscure band called Filter and a Johnny Cash/Tom Petty tribute outfit, bassist Phil Buckman became a voice actor, landing a lucrative gig as the voice in the Carl Jr’s commercials.
For others, being a session musician can be quite rewarding. Justin Derrico loves his job as Pink’s guitarist. The singer expresses her love for creating a close and supportive atmosphere — in concert footage, we see Derrico sitting on stage next to his boss while Pink tells the audience how awesome he is.
“Hired Gun” feels complete in its telling of this much-misunderstood profession. The film offers a whole new perspective on the stage personas of our musical idols: Without the session musicians, the industry’s stars might not have become who they are. This recognition for the people in the background is long overdue.
Thursday, February 16, 6:30pm
2550 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Post-screening Q&A with filmmaker Fran Strine, Dave Ellefson (Megadeth), and Brad Gillis (Night Ranger), moderated by KFOG’s Matt Pinfield.
Tickets are here.