ZZ Top: That Lil Ol’ Band from Texas


You can’t help but have a good time at a ZZ Top concert.

(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
NEXT:
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America

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Back to the Future Part III


Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

(1990) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Shue, Lea Thompson, Richard Dysart, Matt Clark, James Tolkan, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jeffrey Weissman, Flea, J.J. Cohen, ZZ Top, Donovan Scott. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

If you’re going to end a trilogy, there should be a definite ending, one which brings the franchise to a close in case no further films are made, but leaves the possibility for further films if they are warranted. That, in Hollywood terms, is the definition of success of a final entry in a film franchise.

Following the events of Back to the Future Part II (NOTE: If you haven’t seen the first two films there are spoilers in the synopsis of the third. Skip ahead or don’t read if you’d rather not know what happened) Marty McFly (Fox) is stranded back in 1955 and the Doc Brown (Lloyd) of his time has been stranded back in 1885. Marty has to enlist the aid of the 1955 Doc Brown to get Marty home – except they discover that Doc will be murdered in 1885 not long after he arrives.

Marty instead returns back to 1885 a few days before the date on Doc’s tombstone but in the process the gas tank of the Delorean is punctured and all of the gas leaks out, leaving the car essentially an inert hunk of metal. However Doc and Marty figure out a way to get the car moving to 88 MPH and return to the future using a souped-up steam train.

But as always there are complications. Doc and Marty have angered an outlaw named Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Wilson) and Doc has fallen in love with pretty schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Steenburgen). Doc is torn between his love for Clara and the need to get Marty home; will Marty be able to make it back to the future?

My main complaint about the second film was that it didn’t possess the heart of the original. This one more than makes up for it, particularly in the relationship between Doc and Clara. Marty in some ways takes a back seat to Doc in this movie, which is a bit of a refreshing change.

The movie was the least successful at the box office of the three having as much to do with its Western setting as anything else. Westerns were very much out of favor at the time this was made (and continue to be fairly low on the cinematic totem pole, no pun intended, even today) and might have kept away a segment of the audience who preferred the more sci-fi elements of the first two films.

The train scene that is the film’s climax is one of the most impressive of the trilogy and will keep even the most jaded movie buff on the edge of their seats. The camaraderie between Doc and Marty is as always the heart of the film and never is it more in evidence here. In many ways we watch Marty grow from a teenager into a man during the course of the film and for no small reason because Fox went through so much during the back-to-back filming of the last two films in the trilogy; his father passed away while this film was being shot (and filming was suspended for two weeks so he could grieve) and his first child was born as well. Those are the kind of life events that can make even the most immature of men grow up quickly (and no, I’m not trying to imply that Fox was immature back then – hater!) and Fox certainly did that.

This is a fitting end of the trilogy, with a believable romance, great action sequences and is just plain fun to watch. I would put up the Back to the Future trilogy with any film series in Hollywood in terms of sheer entertainment value. Even though I’ve seen all three of the films a dozen times apiece, they still never fail to bring a warm feeling into my heart every time I see them. What more can you ask from a movie?

WHY RENT THIS: Big on thrills. Steenburgen makes an excellent addition to the cast. Reclaims the heart of the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates a bit from formula.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only actors who appear in all three films are Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, Wilson, Tolkan and Cohen (McClure appeared in a single scene in Part II but the scene was cut).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of ZZ Top’s “Doubleback.”. A Back to the Future FAQ text feature illustrates the obstacles of time travel and is an entertaining read if you’re so inclined. There are also animated factoid pop-ups which can be set to appear periodically throughout the film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $244.5M on a $40M production budget; while it still is considered a blockbuster it was strangely the least financially successful of the three films.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Turbo