How Director Sam Dunn Unlocked the Mystery of ZZ Top: Exclusive Interview
Director Sam Dunn has been serving up well-regarded documentaries to rock and heavy metal fans for nearly two decades, including films on Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper and Rush. He turned his focus to the Lone Star State for his latest project, a 90-minute archaeological dig into the world of ZZ Top.
'ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,' arrives this month from Banger Films, with nationwide screenings being coordinated by Abramorama and Eagle Rock Entertainment in conjunction with the group’s 50th anniversary tour.
Navigating the band’s 50-year history and figuring out the story arc was a tall order, as Dunn details in his notes about the film. He calls his initial encounters with ZZ Top “peculiar,” recalling their initial meeting in Ontario prior to a gig: They were “cordial and funny, but also a bit elusive when it came to talking about the film.”
He stayed the course, eventually finding common ground with Billy Gibbons. Still, there was a three-year span between that shaky introduction and the movie's Hollywood premiere earlier this month. We caught up with Dunn afterward to discuss making 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,' beginning with a early caution he received from Carl Stubner at Suretone Management about the group's propensity for being mysterious.
Did that warning end up being true?
The challenge of the film became: How do you tell a story about a band who, really, their whole identity is [their] mystique? They’re one of the few remaining bands who came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s era when managers strategically held the band back. Bill Ham, the legendary manager of ZZ Top, he modeled himself after Col. Tom Parker, who managed Elvis [Presley]. Parker was really careful about how he presented Elvis to the public. So, once we started digging into the story with ZZ, we discovered that Bill Ham actually wouldn’t allow cameras into ZZ shows.
If they saw a film camera or a video camera out in the audience, they’d go out and confiscate it. So they were building this mysterious vibe of this Texas blues-rock trio and it was built into the DNA of this band. So when it came to making a documentary, we realized that while you’re never going to completely undo the mystique, you kind of have to dig into the story and find out where these guys came from and how they rose to become a massive band. So, as I like to say, it was sort of one-part storytelling and two parts archaeology. [Laughs.]
What was that process like, finding the pictures and video to go along with the stories that you had?
Well, to step back, we knew the story that we wanted to tell was basically what led the band to become the massive household name that they became with the Eliminator album in the ‘80s. When if you had a television in 1983, everyone all of the sudden knew what ZZ Top sounded like and even more importantly, what they looked like. My catchline was the phrase: “It’s the band whose image you know, but whose story you don’t.” We discovered that the first piece of actual moving footage with sound of ZZ Top was in 1976, but they formed in 1969. Not to mention the fact that Billy, Dusty [Hill] and Frank [Beard] had played in bands leading up to the formation of ZZ Top.
So, my long-winded point is that it was really basically detective work, thinly veiled as documentary. [Laughs.] We asked the guys in the band, “You guys have got to go into the attic and find those childhood photos, find the photos of you in bands as a teenager.” We reached out to members of the Moving Sidewalks and members of bands that Dusty and Frank had played in before ZZ Top, and then we reached out to fans who had been at shows throughout the ‘70s. Slowly but surely, over three years, we were able to piece together enough visuals to tell that early part of the story.
Some of the most surprising footage in the film for me was from the Worldwide Texas tour in 1976. That tour has its own corner of mythology. Where did that footage come from?
That’s a great question. ... I’m trying to remember exactly what the source was on the Worldwide Texas tour. What I do know, is that a really important part of making this film was reaching out to the estate of Bill Ham. Now, Bill Ham, of course, passed away during the early stages of us making this film. It was disappointing, of course, because he was the fourth member of ZZ Top. He was the guy that built this band. Once he had passed, we had to reach out to representatives from his estate to find what footage was out there. Slowly but surely, I think that Worldwide Texas footage came from the Bill Ham archive – which we didn’t know how much was there. But, eventually, we discovered there were some gems locked away in a Texas basement somewhere.
That must have been a pretty fun corner of the history for you to dig into as a filmmaker.
What’s fascinating to me about this band, I spent the early days of working on this film kind of beating my head against the wall around this whole notion of mystique and how do you make a [film about a] band whose entire DNA is based on the concept of the mystique? Then I began to realize, especially as I interviewed guys like Billy Bob Thornton and Josh Homme, I realized that they kind of had the same perspective as me.
As Billy Bob says in the film, the first time he eventually saw them live, it was like seeing Bugs Bunny in person. [Laughs.] Because you didn’t know if they were real or not. So, it was actually those interviews that made me realize that I wasn’t alone in this mysterious world of ZZ Top and not really knowing who they were. I decided that basically was the story, that was the hook. That’s who ZZ Top is. I found that once I was able to embrace that, that was the road to follow for telling the story.
It sounds like you came across the band for the first time in that Eliminator period. As you immersed yourself in the ZZ Top world, what did you discover about them as a band outside of that Eliminator persona that’s been so burned into everybody’s brains?
That’s a really good question. I was nine years old in 1983 when Eliminator came out and when I saw the videos for “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” it was like a bearded alien band had landed in my living room. I had no idea who these guys were and I didn’t even know if they were a band. Were they even real? Those guys in the video, were those the guys playing the music? So, for me, it became the process of trying to figure out, well, how did they get there? How did they go from being completely mysterious to literally being a household name and image?
For me, what I learned was that here’s a band of Texas eccentrics who were two things: They were steeped in the blues that came out of Texas and the Southern United States. They were deeply immersed in that music, because they had listened to pirate radio coming across from Mexico, with Wolfman Jack and that whole thing, mixed with an appreciation for something heavier and something more rock. And then I realized that was where that band had come from and what Eliminator represented was really kind of an ‘80s version of that. Because Eliminator sonically, in many ways, was such a major departure in terms of the sounds and the production on the music. But I guess what it made me understand was that this was a band that had deep roots, which for the longest time, almost seemed like a band without history.
I also enjoyed how you have them jamming in Gruene Hall, and it’s not just the well-known hits. They’ll be talking about something more obscure – “Brown Sugar,” for example – and you’ve got footage of them playing that song.
As I went through that whole process of discovery of where the band had truly come from, I think we came to the conclusion that we needed a live element of this band that sort of cemented the vibe that I think is truly ZZ Top. That’s why we decided to shoot it at Gruene Hall – you know, the legendary dance hall in Texas. We were explicit that we didn’t want to shoot it with an audience. We wanted to shoot it, them just set up on the floor of the hall, just in a triangle, playing to each other. That whole approach to filming that jam was really important to me, because I felt like at the end of the day, I think that’s the ZZ Top that people love. And that’s the ZZ Top that people want to remember forever: three dudes who had this incredible chemistry and were really able to cultivate a huge amount of feeling and emotion just out of three instruments and three people. That whole Gruene Hall shoot was our attempt to capture what felt like the real ZZ Top spirit.
With no audience in attendance, instead of playing to that crowd, they’re playing to each other and you can see that in that footage.
You’re exactly right, and the whole frame for the film is the fact that they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and they’re celebrating their status as being the longest surviving original lineup in the history of music. I think that we wanted to represent that legacy in kind of a way that took people back to where they started 50 years ago, which was literally just that. As they say in the film, the first time that Billy, Dusty and Frank sat down and jammed “Shuffle in C,” it was like a three-hour jam and they were just like: “Okay, well, I guess this is working out pretty well. Maybe this is the future of ZZ Top!” That was the spirit of that jam, because it was a way to kind of anchor the film in where ZZ Top had come from, given that they formed five decades ago.
That’s what’s kind of cool about it, it has that feeling that you’ve been invited in to watch them in their jam room.
That’s exactly what we were going for. We picked songs from across the catalog, whether it’s “Brown Sugar” or “Blue Jean Blues.” I don’t think anyone likes to hear a director talk about their favorite parts in a movie, but my favorite part in the movie is actually at the very ending, after the dust settles on the Eliminator thing and they got on Johnny Carson and they went supernova. The dust settles in the desert and there they are and they’re jamming out a song, “Blue Jean Blues” from 1975, and it’s kind of the final wrap-up, with the guys sitting around the table. That was really the exact vibe that we wanted to leave people with.
It does kind of end in the Eliminator period. How did you come to the decision to wrap it there?
Well, I think what we discovered in making our previous films was that when you’re trying to tell the story of bands that have had careers across four or five decades, you know, it doesn’t always serve the story best to try and do it all. I think similar to our film Super Duper Alice Cooper, we ended that story after Alice had made sort of a triumphant return in the ‘80s during the MTV era as the king of metal, the grandfather of metal. He got another chance. So, with ZZ Top, we just felt that was the most interesting part of the story. Because Eliminator was so huge and because unless you were a die-hard fan and were old enough to have actually followed them through the ‘70s, again, you had no idea how they got there.
Like, I had no idea whether those guys were 25 or 55 when I saw those videos! [Laughs.] It was like, "What the hell is going on here? Are they in costume? What’s going on?" We just felt that was the most important story to tell. Again, because at the end of the day, if we’re lucky enough that people are watching this film again, five, 10 or 20 years from now, I think the ZZ Top people want to remember is the ZZ Top that came up in the ‘70s era and then crashed into living rooms across the world in the mid-’80s.
What were some of the hardest cuts for you? What are some of the things we’re not seeing in the film that didn’t make it in for one reason or another?
I think the hardest cuts for me were all of the amazing stories from Billy about his childhood. You know, unfortunately, in the process of making a documentary, you have to make some really tough choices to keep the pacing going and keep the audience entertained. Personally, I’m a stickler. I’m not a fan of documentaries that overstay their welcome. Especially when you’re telling stories about bands and there’s a built-in fanbase, it can get real easy to just go on endlessly about every single detail about the band. I think for fans, that’s really interesting, but I think when you do that, you start to alienate a broader audience – and I think you start to lose sight of actually what makes a great story.
So, my answer is that Billy has some amazing tales from his childhood and his upbringing and how he got exposed to blues music. There’s just a mountain of stories before we even got to Moving Sidewalks, let alone to ZZ Top. I think that was the toughest choice, because the way the film is structured, we meet Dusty first, then we meet Frank and then we meet Billy. By the time we got to Billy, I just felt that for the sake of the film and to get it to the point where those three guys formed ZZ Top together, we had to leave a lot of Billy’s fascinating childhood on the cutting-room floor. Maybe somewhere in the future, we can resurrect that material.
I liked the pacing of the film. I think it was about 25 or 30 minutes into the film and it was like, "Man, we’re still really in the early part of their career." It was nice that you were able to linger in these various periods, without it feeling like there was a time period later that got the short shrift.
I appreciate you noticing that, because that was one of the toughest parts of the film. Because again, there was so much fascinating prehistory to ZZ Top. I really wanted that to be part of the story, because I think it’s really fascinating, where these guys came from, their personal lives and how they discovered music. But at the same time, we needed to get to “Shuffle in C” before the half-hour mark. Or otherwise, it doesn’t really feel like a film about ZZ Top. So, in that process, it required a lot of – let’s just say I had a few sleepless nights over all of the good stuff that we had to leave behind.
What’s next for you?
We have a series called Hip-Hop Evolution that we produced that’s on Netflix. The third season of that series is coming in September, so we’re excited about. We have a new music doc series for Netflix which is going to be released next year. I can’t really divulge the details on that yet, but I’m super excited about it, and we’re hoping that it’s going to become a flagship music-doc series that has long legs. And we’re doing a feature doc on an unsung Canadian rock trio by the name of Triumph.
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