Of all the tales of white musicians taking on the blues and turning it into an electronic guitar-laden wank-fest, there is perhaps no story more American than that of ZZ Top, the (mostly) bearded trio of Texan weirdos who taught us all how to feel again. Or something. Or nothing—fact is, those who love 'em, love 'em, those who don't, likely won't. There is no in-between, but no one can say they've never heard a song, and that's something, probably.
Music documentarian Sam Dunn examines that little ol' band from Texas (a moniker that really stuck with Billy F. Gibbons, Frank Beard and Dusty Hill) through intensive interviews with the band itself, as well as notable Texans like Billy Bob Thornton, musicians like some yahoo in Mumford & Sons and various other hangers-on. In Dunn's film, however, we don't just get the stories from the players about toiling in Texas obscurity, that big break with The Rolling Stones and the birth of the massive beards. In addition, we get interspersed live performances from the band and some very cool animated segments reminiscent of Mike Judge's tragically short-lived music documentary series Tales From the Tour Bus.
It's almost enough to convert fans who never much knew or cared about the band, but the film is missing one important ingredient: drama. See, while there was certainly drinking and drug use and moments of insecurity among the band, Dunn's film kind of side steps most of that for a straightforward story about some Texas blues obsessives who stumbled upon a relatively new sound—which was borne by rip-offery, make no mistake—and then got pretty famous without a whole lot of issues. Interviews appear to be taped in members' houses, and they are gorgeous and well-appointed; stories are mostly funny little dirges about how they drank too much but still made the show, still finished the album, still wrote that kicky little guitar lick in C and ultimately won fans.
See, it's not like it's mandatory for a music doc to give us a leering look at hard times, but that doesn't mean it's particularly thrilling to learn ZZ Top did really well for itself without much adversity. Oh, the touring years were probably brutal and we can only assume these tres hombres got up to no good more than once, but outside of learning they've all got drive and heart, the story's ultimately so simple we almost wonder why it took an entire film to tell it.
+Animated segments; music history is always at least a little interesting
-Not much actually happens; you either love or don't care about the tunes
ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas
Directed by Sam Dunn
Netflix, NR, 91 min.