Billy Joel is “heartless” for the way he dismissed band members from the early days of his career, claims the director of a new documentary about backing musicians that opens in theaters on Thursday.
“I was such a fan of his because he was such a great performer and songwriter,” said Fran Strine, director of the documentary “Hired Gun,” which opens in 320 movie houses nationwide, including theaters in Farmingdale, Holtsville, Stony Brook and Westbury, as well as Manhattan and Queens. “But when I heard of what he did to people he had worked with since they were teenagers, people who were left out in the cold, I just thought it was heartless.”
Opening the film are interviews with drummer Liberty DeVitto and guitarist Russell Javors, who talked about the shock they felt after Joel replaced them with other musicians in his band. The trauma was even more severe for DeVitto, who had been part of Joel’s band for 30 years, through major albums and tours, including “The Stranger” and “52nd Street.”
“If Billy is the father, the parent of those songs, I’m at least the uncle,” DeVitto says in the movie, adding that he was the one who told Joel that “Only the Good Die Young” should not be a reggae song. He said he told Joel, “The closest you’ve been to Jamaica is Jamaica, Long Island, when you change trains on the Long Island Rail Road.”
Joel declined to comment on the documentary’s assertions and on Strine’s characterization of his relationships with his former bandmates. Strine said Joel declined to be involved with the documentary and that all the footage of the singer used in the movie came from film archives. He did include the story about how Joel turned down working with George Martin. The Beatles producer wanted to replace Joel’s band with session musicians, but Joel wanted to keep the band together.
Though DeVitto and Javors talk about how they were surprised by what they felt was lack of loyalty to them, turnover is unusual in the Joel camp. He has used the same road crew for more than 40 years; saxophonist Mark Rivera has been in his band since 1982 and guitarist Tommy Byrnes has been by his side since 1989; and Joel’s musical director, keyboardist David Rosenthal, has been with him for 24 years. Joel was also instrumental in getting DeVitto, Javors, saxophonist Richie Cannata and the late Doug Stegmeyer, who played bass in the band for years, inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
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Strine said he worked on “Hired Gun” for three years, interviewing dozens of musicians hired to perform with artists ranging from Alice Cooper to Pink and Mandy Moore, in order to shine the spotlight on the supporting players. “These guys have honed their craft their entire lives,” he said. “People should show them some love.”
Strine said the stories from the former members of Joel’s band were the ones that shocked him the most during his research for the film.
However, DeVitto, who currently plays with Javors in The Lords of 52nd Street, which performs Joel classics as they were done on the original albums, seems willing to put his beef with Joel behind him.
“If I saw Billy I’d go up to him and hug him and tell him I love him,” DeVitto says in the movie. “If he called me up and said, ‘I’m sorry. Do you want to play again?’ I’d say yeah.”