Why ZZ Top Were Far From an Obvious Documentary Subject
ZZ Top aren't the most natural fit for a rock documentary.
Newly released on home video, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas bucks the genre's template in many ways. The group has thrived for more than five decades without the breakups, lineup changes or commercial bottoming outs that typically provide the narrative backbone for these sorta projects.
Instead, the idiosyncratic, self-contained trio has managed to maintain an air of mystery while avoiding any major controversies or tragedies throughout its career. So, why pull the curtain back now?
“At first it wasn't an obvious choice, in a sense that this was a band that we knew very little about, generally pretty private and has this long kind of road before most of the people on the planet knew who they were," director Sam Dunn tells UCR. "Our attitude was like, ‘Well, we can use that as an opportunity to really dig into where ZZ Top came from. What's their story? How did they get to that point where one night no one knew who they were, and then the next night it seemed like everyone knew who they were by virtue of these MTV music videos?’ So, that was the kernel of the story that intrigued us.”
Like millions of kids who grew up in the early '80s, Dunn was introduced to the music of ZZ Top through their eye-catching videos on MTV, the ones that featured guitarist Billy Gibbons' and bassist Dusty Hill's very long beards, the attractive women and the iconic roadster. But he was unfamiliar with the group's earlier music.
“I didn't know their back catalog,” Dunn, co-founder of the Toronto-based production company Banger, says. “I didn't know where they had come from. I didn't know their early records. And so when we got the opportunity to make the film, I spent time going back listening to those early records and getting a stronger sense of where they came from.”
That Little Ol' Band From Texas makes its home-video release on Feb. 28 via DVD, Blu-ray and digital formats. The documentary chronicles the 50-year career of the trio, starting with individual members’ early forays into music before ZZ Top to their slow but gradual rise beyond their region during the '70s to their ascendancy to mainstream popularity starting with 1983’s Eliminator. In addition to interviews with all three founding members — Gibbons, Hill and drummer Frank Beard — the movie offers testimonials from notable figures such as Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Miller and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme.
Among the many things tackled in the documentary are how the band nailed its distinctive blues-influenced rock sound in the studio, its legendary Worldwide Texas Tour from 1976-77, its supporting slot for the Rolling Stones in Honolulu and the influence of late manager Bill Ham, the unofficial fourth member of ZZ Top.
“He modeled himself on Colonel Tom Parker, who famously protected and controlled Elvis [Presley]'s career," Dunn says of Ham. "He had the same approach with ZZ Top. Right from the get-go when we started making the film, we knew Bill Ham was going to be a central part of the story. And when he passed away [in 2016], we had to think about using animation and other tools to make the viewers feel that he was actually part of the story, and it wasn't just other people telling the story for him.”
Another theme is the band's link to Texas, which played a huge role in defining not the music but also its image. “The one piece of the story that really fascinated me was the fact that they were from Texas and they've always maintained this very strong Texan identity," Dunn explains. "Texas today may not be regarded as the most ‘woke’ of places. But I think what I learned through making the film is that Texas is this very diverse, rich state that has a lot of music and cultural history in it.
“And there's more to it than sort of this cowboy-redneck kind of stereotype. The ZZ Top guys were faced with that stereotype, and they got booed offstage when they opened for the Rolling Stones in Honolulu in the mid-‘70s. They had to face some pretty apprehensive crowds who just thought they were a bunch of country dudes from the South. And so what I learned was that their Texan identity was really important to them and that they wanted to be a reflection of where they came from. That's a piece of the ZZ Top story that had never really been told before.”
Watch the Trailer for 'That Little Ol' Band From Texas'
One of the revealing aspects of the ZZ Top tale is Beard's earlier drug problems, which the drummer talks about, as well as his path to rehab during the band’s hiatus in the late ‘70s. “He's got a fantastic sense of humor," Dunn notes.
"He was ready to be candid about the struggles he faced. He had a pretty tough upbringing in Texas, and from a very young age had some challenges with family and stuff. I think for him getting into rock 'n' roll was a bit of an escape from that. Of course, like it does with so many musicians, it can come back to bite you. I didn't know that that was the reason why the band took that hiatus in the late '70s. Telling the ZZ Top story was really kind of like trying to piece together this puzzle, a lot of disparate pieces that no one had ever fully connected before.”
While ZZ Top’s music has always been rooted in rock and the blues, their interest in other musical trends helped them stay relevant, especially Gibbons’ visit to England during the punk era.
“You look at ZZ Top on the surface and what you basically see is a bunch of blues traditionalists,” says Dunn. “But the fact of the matter is Billy Gibbons was visiting dance clubs in the ‘80s, paying attention to what people were dancing to, and they were dancing to Duran Duran and Michael Jackson. He was realizing that there was a new sound coming in the early '80s using synths and different ways for guitar and bass sounds and drum sounds. He realized that it was an opportunity to bring that into ZZ Top’s music.”
That Little Ol' Band From Texas had its world premiere in August in Los Angeles. Gibbons and Hill attended the screening, and "they were really impressed,” Dunn recalls. “Dusty just kept saying to me after the screening, ‘Sam, man, I just love the way you just put it all together. You just put it all together, just so nice.’”
For Dunn, the true beauty of ZZ Top is that they will always remain an enigma, even after their story is told. “They're always going to keep themselves somewhat of a mystery," he noted. "They're never going to reveal too much. They're always going to be the band that drives off into the distance on a hot rod. And you're still saying, ‘I watched 90 minutes about those guys, but do I really know who they are? Maybe I never will.’ And I think that that actually, in a weird way, is the essence of ZZ Top.”