tue 26/05/2020

ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas, Netflix review - riffs, drugs and rodeos | reviews, news & interviews

ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas, Netflix review - riffs, drugs and rodeos

ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas, Netflix review - riffs, drugs and rodeos

Documentary on Texan rockers never really gets under the hood but is still passingly enjoyable

Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard crack wise about 50 years of rock'n'roll blues

ZZ Top always seemed like a Texan version of Status Quo. It turns out, from watching this entertaining but hardly revelatory documentary, that is kind of what they are.

ZZ Top always seemed like a Texan version of Status Quo. It turns out, from watching this entertaining but hardly revelatory documentary, that is kind of what they are. Directed by Canadian Sam Dunn, best known for his 2005 documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, the film follows Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard as they go from Hicksville also-rans to global megastars, while hardly changing their bar room blues boogie a jot.

The hour-and-a-half documentary is good on their convoluted beginnings, clearly laying out their stints in various wannabe-Beatles/Stones 1960s outfits, with guitarist Gibbons’ band, Moving Sidewalks, part of the same Houston scene that birthed the lysergic garage madness of The 13th Floor Elevators. Drummer Frank Beard – arguably the most famous pop quiz answer of all time – tells how he first persuaded Gibbons to jam with him: “I was jacked up on speed and made him play for eight hours.”

Beard is candid about his escapades and without him the film would be much the less, for Gibbons and Hill, while likeable and wry, play their cards close to their chests. ZZ Top have always relied on enigma, and the pair are not about to start showing their hands now. It soon becomes clear that the key to the band’s success is manager Bill Ham who carefully manipulated their image, creating their patent sound with producer Robin “Hood” Brians and building a mystique that culminates in those famous beards and in brilliantly designing a campaign for the band’s multi-million selling 1983 hit album Eliminator.

For most Europeans, Eliminator was the first we’d heard of ZZ Top but they were already massive in the States throughout the Seventies. The film focuses on the excesses of their Worldwide Texas Tour, which included appearances from live steers, buzzards, a buffalo and other animals. It was, says fan Billy Bob Thornton “a rodeo, circus and rock show all wrapped in one.” It was also a statement. ZZ Top knew that much of America looked down on them and their home state and responded in true Texan style.

After this tour, the band took a short break that turned into a three year long hiatus. Beard needed it to shake a drug habit. Wild-eyed he relates his narcotic life – his first ever drug experience was injecting LSD! – and blatantly extols the pleasures of heroin, but it all had to stop. Meanwhile, Hill, unbelievably, goes to work in an airport, just so he can get back to a bit of normal, and Gibbons tours the world, dipping a toe into London’s burgeoning punk rock scene and hitting the hippy trail in India.

When the trio come back together, we are told that their adventures have advanced their sound in experimental directions. An archive clip is played of them jamming at a concert, a distorted, discordant pummelling that hints at a whole other side to them. Intrigued, I played Degüello, the album they came back with, as I was writing this… and it sounds much like everything else they did! Then again, this is also the appeal of ZZ Top, and at their best they fly.

The film draws to a halt with Eliminator, relating how music videos directed by Tim Newman (Randy’s brother) on MTV were the making of it. The funniest bit in the film is when the band explain how they first discovered MTV but I won’t spoil the gag here. Eliminator was 37 years ago and ZZ Top had a major career in its wake but that’s where we close. That Little Ol’ Band From Texas never really gets under the hood, never challenges its subjects, and, consequently, excepting Beard’s occasional candidness, is mostly the story of a music marketing man's vision coming to fruition, short on compulsive human drama, but with enough oomph to be enjoyable.

Below: Watch the trailer for ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas

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