'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas': Film Review

Ross Halfin
Enjoyable origin story gets more half-assed as it goes.
8/20/2019

Sam Dunn profiles musicians birthed in the blues but known for their beards.

A rock doc that, like many of its subjects' fans, loses interest in its story shortly after they become huge stars, Sam Dunn's ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas marvels at the endurance of a three-piece now known mostly for their beards. A good-natured ride at first, its limited scope grows more apparent as it goes; still, a feel-good approach is unlikely to hurt it as it begins a road-show release concurrent with the band's 50th anniversary tour.

Relying mostly on interviews with the band and those intimately involved with their career, the documentary brings in the occasional star for brief commentary about their musical personality — Josh Homme effuses; Billy Bob Thornton feels that being at a ZZ concert is "like seeing Bugs Bunny in person" — but has no use for the critics or music-history folks who might put them in context.

With the exception of a closing scene, the movie speaks to each man on his own, as if to guarantee equal time. So if you're a guitar-head who mostly just wants to hear from Billy Gibbons, you'll first need to hang out in Dusty Hill's man-shed and hear about his vast collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia; if you're someone who likes to see the face of the person talking to you, you'll have to wait for segments with Frank Beard. (His hirsute bandmates, true to form, keep their shades on throughout.)

Having seen Hill and Gibbons only in their disguises for several decades, it's almost a shock to see what they really look(ed) like in the ample still and moving pictures Dunn has to share. Hill gets the story started, recalling his youth in a rough Dallas neighborhood, his early bands and the way his brother abruptly recruited Beard to drum for them. Dunn's use of stock footage to illustrate these old stories is on-the-nose and sometimes distracting, but the scrappy vibe of 1960s rock combos comes through well before the narrative moves down to Houston.

There, Gibbons was in his own group, one so enamored of the 13th Floor Elevators (RIP, Roky) that they named themselves for another mode of personal transport, The Moving Sidewalks. They got to open for Jimi Hendrix, and had the gall to do two of his songs during their set. But members got drafted or settled down, and while looking for new companions, Gibbons met the recently relocated Beard. Beard mentioned a bassist he knew from Dallas. The three met up in a rehearsal space one day, someone suggested improvising a little shuffle in C, and they played that continuously for the next three hours.

Dunn cuts away now to performance footage staged at beloved Central Texas venue Gruene Hall — a midday concert with no audience — where they recreate that shuffle. It's telling that, among the several songs they perform here for the film, you don't hear "Sharp Dressed Man." Or "Legs," or "Gimme All Your Lovin'": The hits that helped define MTV from 1983's Eliminator LP are far from the heart of this film, which is drunk on the earthier, sometimes strange music they made in the dozen or so previous years. Though Hill will quickly note that they never called themselves a blues band — "we are interpreters of the blues" — they appealed to roots-music fans in an age of disco, and built up a following by playing any lousy venue that would have them. (Cue a fun story about the gig that only one guy came to see — they played their full set for him, and he returned for many shows over the years.)

We follow the evolution of their sound, talking to a couple of crucial studio professionals, and hear how their famed manager Bill Ham, who strategized like Presley's Colonel Tom Parker, established their mystique with dazzling showmanship.

Video director Tim Newman sheds some light on the early videos that sent them from stardom to global superstardom, and then, in the mid-'80s, the movie pretty much stops. Titles inform us that the band continued to tour and record after that, but give us the distinct impression that most of that time has been a punch-the-clock effort to pay for the giant houses the fellas are filmed in. All three sit down together briefly in Gruene, ostensibly trying to answer the question of how they've stayed together for half a century. Based on the film, one guesses that a healthy amount of time apart has something to do with it.

Production company: Banger Films
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Sam Dunn
Screenwriters: Ralph Chapman, Sam Dunn
Producer: Scot McFadyen
Executive producers: Sam Dunn, Geoff Kempin, Terry Shand, Carl Stubner
Director of photography: Martin Hawkes
Editors: Alex Shuper, Mark Staunton

90 minutes