I remember over my years watching History’s Duck Dynasty that the lead characters had very characteristic beards. One of the multi-season collections even came with a beard you could put on or display. A lot of folks thought it was a clever element that set these “good ol’ boys” apart from the other eccentric characters the network parades in their “reality” shows, but if you’re a fan of American music, you would know those beards anywhere. They originally belonged to ZZ Top iconic guitarist Billy Gibbons and equally iconic bass player Dusty Hill, who along with the ironically beardless drummer Frank Beard form the trio ZZ Top. After 50 years they remain the longest running rock band in history to still feature the complete original lineup. Of course, that’s not quite as hard to do with only three members, but it’s a milestone that even few marriages celebrate, and that’s only two people. Like them, love them, or not, ZZ Top have become one of the most quintessential American bands in history. It’s easily recognized with just a few opening chords, and it’s about time someone sat down with these boys to find out what makes them tick and just how three poor cowboys from Texas changed the American music scene forever.
The documentary is by noted filmmaker Sam Dunn, who is usually known for his coverage of the metal scene. ZZ Top is a little out of the way for Dunn, but he manages to capture the essence of a band that has relied on an element of mystery their entire careers. They don’t do a lot of events, interviews, or promotional gigs. They have traditionally let the music speak for themselves, and it likely took a director with a willingness to color outside the lines to bring the band’s history and true personality out for the cameras. It’s not a traditional kind of documentary. As history is told by one participant or another, you certainly get the expected vintage photographs, performance posters, and grainy footage of the days before fame. That’s all here, but there’s more. The film resorts to some black & white animation to cover some of the important meetings and decisions that came up along the way. Of most interest is the overall use of a private performance deep in the heart of Texas where the trio gather and recreate the milestone musical moments that served as turning points in their lives. It’s not only nice to have a somewhat intimate concert with the band but be close enough to watch them recall those moments as they ran through the music being described. I loved those moments and wish there had actually been more of that.
Of course, Billy, Frank & Dusty are candid about how they found each other and both the good and not-so-good moments. While they never appeared to experience the typical band drama that eventually breaks up the best of bands, they did have as many lows as highs. They talk about a tour of small Texas cities and venues where they found themselves on stage with only one guy in the audience. He appeared uncomfortable and was about to leave when they pleaded with him to stay. They did the whole show for him and bought him a soda during the intermission. They guy never would give them his name, but apparently he still shows up at gigs, and they greet each other with a fond “Remember me?”. It’s a wonderful story that any musician can relate to even if they might not admit it. Frank Beard is very candid about his drug use, telling a story that when he finally got his first substantial check of $72,000, he blew it all on drugs. There’s an intimate honesty here that brings this band completely down to earth and makes them about as real-life people as you can be.
While the band had achieved some fame from their breakout in the early 70’s, it wasn’t until MTV came along and they hooked up with a cousin of Randy Newman and took full advantage of the music video fad. They were at the right place at the right time just when these videos were making the transition from just performance pieces to telling little stories. The ZZ Top story of three “ghostly” musicians helping young teens fulfill their dreams featured a real hot car and smokin’ hot women. The ongoing story would make the band’s Eliminator album the first hit album of the MTV age. Sadly, the documentary ends there, with just postscripts to fill in the next 25 years or so. I assume it was all part of the style, but the real music fans would have loved to see the complete story.
ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30-35 mbps. The high-definition image presentation is pretty much what you would expect from a documentary. The new material is clean and crisp and colors and resolution all pretty natural. The vintage footage, of course, struggles in quality because of the age and limited source material. Fans will just be glad it’s here at all. Everything about this presentation is intimate, and the image presentation is all about that feel.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is the choice I selected over the LPCM stereo mix. It’s deep and much fuller owing to more solid subs and crisper separation. None of it makes a huge difference in the interviews or even the vintage footage. The new performances are where all the sound magic comes together. These are fantastic performances, and it’s just like you were that one guy who got to see it all being played just for you.
The only extras are the four full tracks from the private show and full footage of some of the archive material. There’s about a half-hour in all with an individual track selection.
I don’t know how many documentaries might exist of the band, but their relative shyness for attention off the stage makes this somewhat of a rare kind of thing. It’s as if the three men opened up their home and invited you to sit for a spell. While ZZ Top might never have reached the dizzy heights of some better known bands, they actually had staying power that no other band had, and this documentary helps you to understand that more than anything else. There aren’t the usual egos here. After 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll stardom, they remain down-to-earth guys just having a jam. But they took note of changing styles and trends and infiltrated those movements without giving up what they remained at their core. They had their instruments, and they “know how to use them”.