Filmmaker Sam Dunn Explains Why ZZ Top's Story Had to Be Told in 2019
It's not just their 50th anniversary keeping them relevant
Published Aug 23, 2019Bearded blues rockers ZZ Top enthused and impressed the masses when their music videos first emerged in the 1980s. A pop culture anomaly to be sure, the band's sense of humour, paired with their impressive chops, made them a musical meme of sorts. But while their novelty is undeniable, the group's backstory is actually tied intricately with the history of American rock'n'roll. As such, Banger Films honcho and musical documentarian Sam Dunn felt their story was one that needed to be told, and ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas was born.
"For the average music fan, none of them knew who ZZ Top was before those iconic videos landed on MTV and MuchMusic from the Eliminator album," he tells Exclaim! from the Banger office. "I saw those videos when I was nine years old, and it sort of felt like there was a bearded alien band landing in my living room. It was sort of like, 'Who are these guys? What's with the beards? Are they even really a band?' Because they're sort of there in the videos and not there. The story we wanted to tell was what led them to that point.
"I think the story that really needed to be told was those early years of how they formed, how they built their following, and how they became this really unique combination of blues and rock and Texas boogie all in one," he continues. "And then with this mysterious image with the beards, and embracing their Texan identity."
The timing for the film couldn't be better. Not only are ZZ Top celebrating 50 years as a band in 2019, but they've also informed our culture more than we may realize.
"I think Josh Homme said it best in the film when the band is playing 'Brown Sugar' at Green Hall, where he says the intro to 'Brown Sugar,' which is just Gibbons and his guitar, is right out of the blues songbook. But then when it kicks in, it becomes something completely different," Dunn explains. "I think today in 2019 with the speed and frequency with which artists are melding genres — like we've got 'Old Town Road,' and these kind of musical mashups that we never would have imagined. I think 'Brown Sugar' in 2019 may seem kind of innocuous, but I think at that time no one had ever really done that before. No one had done that particular way of combining the blues with something heavier. That was brand new. That's the historical journey we wanted to take the viewers on."
Still, there are things that make ZZ Top unique from the current cultural moment. For one, they're not really into oversharing.
"I think what fascinated me about ZZ Top was the fact that this is really one of the last bands still standing from a generation of bands that came up in the '60s and '70s where mystique was part of the DNA and the fabric of the band and how they were presented to the public," Dunn explains. "The notion of how to build mystique as a musician and a band now is basically absurd. Even Tool, one of the last standouts, finally put all their albums on streaming services and are doing interviews and fully participating in the media culture now. For me, it was an untold story about a band that has been around a lot longer than most people realize, and it happened in a curious way where they were simultaneously able to be a hugely popular band while really never revealing who they are."
Of course, talking to a band that prides itself on mystique comes with its own set of challenges.
"It was really hard to get ZZ Top to come out of their shell," Dunn admits. "The process of making the film with these guys was challenging for the reasons I just said. They survived 50 years without really ever talking about their lives at any depth, so it took three years to take the film. It took many interviews over the course of three years in multiple locations. It took digging deep into their archives. It took talking to fans of the band and people who have worked with the band across decades to kind of piece together the story. Really, it was kind of one part storytelling and two parts archaeological mystery, where you're piecing together fragments from the past. To be fair, I think that the film doesn't fully reveal who these bearded dudes are. I think it reveals them as far as anyone ever will, and I think the mystery is something they'll never fully let go of."
Find out everything you need to know when ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas plays at select Cineplex locations across Canada tonight (August 23).