(2019) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Bob Thornton, Joshua Homme, Terry Manning, Steve Miller, Winston Marshall, Robin Hood Brians, Tim Newman, Ralph Fisher, Howard Bloom, Dan Auerbach. Directed by Sam Dunn
Texas, it is said, is a state of mind and there’s a lot of truth in that. Texans are kind of a breed unto themselves. They revere their frontier past and pride themselves on being outlaws and rulebreakers. A Texan will give you the shirt off his back or shoot you in the face with a shotgun. Texans are Cowboys, oilmen, roughnecks, barflies, ladies’ men and asskickers. In Texas, they still remember the Alamo – Texans first, Americans after.
It actually blew my mind a little bit that the band was founded in 1969 as an answer to the Texas psychedelic kingpins 13th Floor Elevators in Houston with Gibbons, drummer Dan Mitchell and bassist/organist (!) Lanier Grieg. When Mitchell and Grieg bailed, drummer Frank Beard auditioned and won the slot. Beard talked Gibbons into auditioning Dusty Hill, who’d played with Beard in a band called the Warlocks in Dallas in the mid-60s.
The three clicked and began playing a fusion of Texas boogie blues and rock and roll. It began to click on songs like “La Grange” and “Tush” in the 70s. After the mammoth World Texas Tour (complete with a Texas-shaped stage and livestock onstage), the band planned for a 90-day break which with Beard’s drug addiction turned into two years. During that time Hill and Gibbons never shaved and returned to work with chest-length beards.
In 1983, the band would hit their commercial zenith with Eliminator, which spawned hit singled “Gimme All Your Loving,” “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” Nascent video music channel MTV played the heck out of their videos, directed by Tim Newman (cousin of Randy). Newman really established the “cartoon versions,” as Gibbons wryly put it, of the band which became iconic in 80s pop culture. In an era of New Wave, synthesizers (which the band did employ) and skinny ties, these Texas working class boys with Civil War-era beards became video superstars. I don’t think you could make up a more unlikely scenario.
Dunn opts to show the “Gimme All Your Loving” video in its entirety for some reason – much of the other musical clips are the band playing in the venerable Gurene Music Hall (the oldest in Texas) before an empty house, perhaps reminding us of the occasion in Alvin, Texas, when the band played to an audience of exactly one paying customer. (“He still comes to shows to this day,” says Hill ruefully, “He says ‘Remember me?” and I say “Of course I do,””). For some reason, the documentary abruptly stops with coverage of Eliminator with the 35 years afterwards being reduced to a graphic “The band still records and tours to this day,” which essentially ignores great albums like Afterburner. Still, I imagine that if Dunn wanted to cover all 50 years of the band’s existence, he’d need a mini-series.
Much of the credit for the band’s success goes to their manager Bill Ham, who sadly passed away in 2016. The band members consider him as integral to ZZ Top as the musicians himself but he rarely gave interviews and wanted the band initially to maintain a mystique, so they rarely gave interviews or performed on television in the early years which is why there is a dearth of band footage.
Part of the documentary’s charm are the members of ZZ Top themselves; they don’t take themselves too seriously and are the kind of guys you’d spend a Saturday afternoon fishing with, or a Sunday afternoon watching football and drinking beer. There is absolutely no rock star attitude to be found. They’re just working men whose job happens to be playing rock and roll.
The band has kept the same line-up for 50 years, a feat that is absolutely amazing. No other rock and roll band can claim that. Beard best explained it at the end when he said, humbly, “I found the guys I was meant to play with. After that, I didn’t want to quit and I didn’t want to get fired.” Judging from their interviews, they are guys you’d want to hang out with and who would want to stop working with guys you like hanging out with?
ZZ Top has always been a band that didn’t really get their due in a lot of ways, despite being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Gibbons is one of the best American guitar players and their music has always evolved over the years although their roots as a boogie blues rock band have always been present. While this isn’t the documentary I would have liked to have seen of the band – maybe it should have been a mini-series – it at least makes a terrific introduction to those who aren’t already fans of the band.
The film will soon be playing nationwide for about the next two months. There are no dates currently scheduled in Orlando but if you ask Tim Anderson or Matthew Curtis nicely, maybe they’ll add it to the Music Monday series at some point.
REASONS TO SEE: The boys in the band are the kind you’d want to have a beer with.
REASONS TO AVOID: Basically stops after covering the Eliminator album in 1984.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the world-famous Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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