Critically-acclaimed documentarian and International Emmy-winning filmmaker Sam Dunn takes the directorial reins in his latest project, ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band’s 1969 conception, this documentary tells the story of the legendary group known for their innovative “rock and blues” music style. Both technically and narratively engaging, this film is sure to garner audiences’ attentions, regardless of their personal attachments (or lack thereof) to ZZ Top.
Led by guitarist and vocalist Billy Gibbons, bassist and vocalist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard, this trio’s story about their rise to fame is as unlikely as it is intriguing. Using interviews from the three founding members, input from their producers, publicists, and recording artists, and accounts from other music gurus like Billy Bob Thornton and Steve Miller, Dunn gives the audience an intimate and personal glimpse into the whirring gears of the ZZ Top machine. All three members of the band were born and raised in the state of Texas, but their respective individual musical careers had been underway for a few years throughout the 1960s before coming into contact with one another. Hill and Beard happened to unite together in the band American Blues, while Gibbons performed for a time with Moving Sidewalks. Finally, in 1969, Gibbons, Hill, and Beard joined forces to form the band audiences worldwide know today. Still, to say that they were an overnight success would be massively misleading. While their chemistry was undeniable, and each member knew exactly what they had with the band, they still needed assistance and guidance from their manager and producer, Bill Hamm. Hamm was the one who connected the band with Robin Hood Brians, head of Robin Hood Studios. Hamm and Brians were incredibly significant when it came to helping the trio craft their unmistakably unique and inventive audible style. It was certainly a variation of the blues, but it was like nothing that had been heard before. There was a harder edge to it, with more rock and roll, and a heavier rhythm compared to what was widely accepted as the blues. Dusty Hill himself essentially stated that they were never a blues band, but rather “interpreters” of the blues. Taking influence from both Texas and Tennessee music techniques, ZZ Top had managed to formulate an iconic method of creating music that will forever be attributed to them specifically. This documentary paid great respect in ensuring that the viewer understood the depth of ZZ Top’s experimentality. The focus on their avant-garde fashion of generating music was quite enthralling and fascinating.
Yet, even still, ZZ Top had a very difficult time growing a base of followers and fans. One particularly memorable account from the film was the night early in their career together when only one man showed up to their concert. However, like true showmen, the band played their entire set for this singular soul, even churning out an encore. After the show, they took the time to sit and chat with the stranger, buying him a Coke as a sign of thanksgiving for his support. Over the years, as ZZ Top’s prestige has grown, this man has continued to appear at concerts, remaining a truly loyal fan. He has never shared his name with the band, but they always remember him from that inauspicious night many decades ago. This story is a perfect microcosm of the personality and principles of ZZ Top. They never slowed down with their production efforts, even when they were discouraged, with no big breaks in sight. They took every opportunity given to them with wholehearted commitment, dedication, and zeal. When they got the chance to open for The Rolling Stones in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1973, they gave a spectacularly energetic performance as the prelude to the main event. The crowd responded very positively and enthusiastically, giving a welcome boost of confidence to the band. However, as articles and reviews of the concert were published in the following days, the focus was placed entirely on The Rolling Stones, with virtually no mention of ZZ Top. This continued to happen, as they performed in various concert circuits and festivals. ZZ Top was constantly overshadowed by other acts, and journalists, frankly, could not develop coherent words and thoughts to properly describe their style. Directed as a criticism, they were referenced as “that little ol’ band from Texas” in one account. The conventional wisdom in that time was that the greatest musicians only came out of California. There was simply no way that this bizarre band from Texas could become the next face of the music industry. Fortunately, their publicist, Howard Bloom, came into the mix, capitalizing on negative reviews by using them as building blocks and stepping stones on their path to greatness. He recognized that ZZ Top would never escape the connotation of Texas and decided to lean into this association as strongly as ever. The band placed great emphasis on spectacle from there on out, especially that which shined light on their Texas roots. They brought in animal trainers to wrangle farm animals for their concerts and performances, from longhorns to buffalo to buzzards. They invested in extravagant props, costumes, and sets that put Texas at the forefront of their identity. ZZ Top was breaking the mold once again, unapologetically owning their one-of-a-kind nature. Perhaps more than anything else, this documentary did a fantastic job delving into the core of what made ZZ Top tick. Placing attention on the individuals, such as Bloom, who were instrumental in the group’s breakthrough was a compelling narrative device that opened the door even further into the moving parts of this musical and entertainment project.
The argument could be made that the narrative structure of this documentary is formulaic, depicting the band’s gradual rise to fame and stardom from their grassroots beginnings. The first act is paced rather slowly, the middle act kicks into high gear, and the third act wraps up loose ends and catches the audience up on ZZ Top’s recent exploits. However, this predictable format has a trivially negative impact on the film as a whole, considering the sheer entertainment value provided by the rest of the filmmaking craftsmanship. This documentary is incredibly well-edited by Alex Shuper, Mark Staunton, and Adoniyas Yegezu, who expertly arranged the archived B-roll footage from the band’s history into the narrative. From the grainy, black-and-white photos from the band members’ childhoods, to concert footage and MTV music video clips from each stage in the band’s development, to the overlay of interviews and comments from the eclectic array of figures who influenced the success of ZZ Top in one way or another, the editors displayed masterful virtuosity and adroitness in their efforts. Also included were quirky 2-D animated sequences which served as effective visual aids to support the stories and chronicles conveyed in the interviews. Segments like this certainly would not tonally mesh in other documentaries, but they felt perfectly at home with the atmosphere established in this film. In addition to the editors, equally as commendable are the achievements from the slew of sound editors and mixers, as well as the music supervisors. The rich soundtrack is chock-full of ZZ Top’s diverse tunes, from their early deep cut tracks to their greatest hits. Still, that delicate balance between the music and the musician is managed very well. The music does not overshadow the documentary’s focus on the artists. Rather, it complements this direction and center of attraction. The relationship of art and the artist is symbiotic, with both sides reliant on one another. This film finds a way to place accentuation on each side of the equation, without tipping too far to the edge in either direction. Director Sam Dunn had a tight grip on his vision, and ensured that it came to be fulfilled.
With a runtime of 90 minutes, this film manages to pack the band’s substantial history into a relatively short feature. However, there is still a deeper level of exploration into ZZ Top’s ventures that may yet have been included. The story methodically develops their formation and humble beginnings, their struggle to attain prosperity, and their eventual establishment as pop culture icons. Finally, there is about a 10-minute wrap-up and reflection, detailing the band’s more recent enterprises. This conclusion feels slightly abrupt and unnatural. Transitioning rather suddenly to more current events, following a depiction of their influence on MTV in the 1980s, the flow of the denouement appears inorganic. Of course, the filmmakers had likely decided that the most impactful points of the story had already hit their mark. Perhaps an extension of the narrative would have grown tiresome and repetitive. Yet, it is hard to ignore that this hasty resolution was somewhat detractive from the overall score of the film.
Ultimately, if the biggest issue to be had with a film is an uneven final 10 minutes, when the rest of the feature is incredibly well-executed, it is a generally forgivable offense. The filmmakers succeeded with flying colors as they set out to tell the amazing true story of a band who revolutionized the music and showbusiness industry. The captivating narrative is told with careful attention to detail, a gripping stylistic approach, and vibrant layers of personality and heart. Fans of film and music alike will probably find something to appreciate in this documentary.
In select theaters beginning August 13th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
EoM is running an edited version of this review with permission from author Thomas Manning. Read the original draft on his website The Run-Down on Movies.