The 1980s were very much a New Wave era musically, so it's a bit surprising that ZZ Top became iconic during the decade. The blues-based rock band had been around for a while and scored some hits. Their inventive music videos were staples on MTV, though, propelled by the mystique of that ubiquitous “Eliminator” car and, of course, those long beards. No doubt the videos helped expose a great many people to the music, which launched the band to heights they probably could never have anticipated. They're more than the '80s, but without the '80s, they might not have had the same high profile. The new documentary ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas charts the early days and goes right up through that MTV domination.
One of the great ironies of ZZ Top is that it consists of three members – Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard – but the only one without the trademark beard is the guy actually named Beard. This issue is addressed in the doc, so that tells you how down-to-earth these guys are. All of them demonstrate a sense of humor about their image, as well as the unusual way their band became a household name.
Early scenes tell how they got together and formed their musical style. Despite sharing a blues influence, the goal was to play traditional blues riffs in a rock-and-roll style. Attention from the public arrived swiftly because what they were doing was so original. The film also covers ZZ Top's initial breakthrough with songs like “Tush” and “La Grange.” Relentless touring eventually took a toll, with the men going their own separate ways for a few years. Beard's drug addiction and subsequent recovery are discussed, too.
The highlight is the section on their '80s fame. After stumbling across MTV by accident (and believing it was just a TV special), ZZ Top decided to give music videos a try. Little did they know it, but hiring filmmaker Tim Newman to direct them was a masterstroke. Working in conjunction with the band, Newman helped establish their aura, which always included a fancy car, pretty girls, and storylines where they mysteriously appeared to help underdogs. “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” and other videos followed this winning formula.
Hearing Gibbons, Hill, and Beard talk about these events is enjoyable. Each of them is relaxed and funny, displaying none of the rock star arrogance you sometimes get in documentaries of this sort. They seem equal parts proud of and amused by their unlikely path to mega-stardom. Famous friends like Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Miller, and Queens of the Stone Age singer/guitarist Josh Homme are interviewed, expounding on ZZ Top's influence.
ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas is generally a happy documentary. If there were super-dark times for the band (aside from Beard's addiction), you don't really hear about them. Director Sam Dunn is mostly interested in celebrating their career and music, as opposed to exploring any demons that might have been present. Or maybe Gibbons, Hill, and Beard are just normal, well-adjusted dudes who happen to make great music. Even if it lacks the depth of rock docs like David Crosby: Remember My Name or After the Screaming Stops (Google it, find it, and see it), That Little Ol' Band is a fun, enlightening look at one of the most unique and talented acts in the history of popular music.
out of four
ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas is unrated, but contains language and mature thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.