In the 15 years since Sam Dunn and his Banger Films production company created their first film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Dunn and his team have realized a horde of definitive music documentaries. Their latest, ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas, unearths the largely unknown story about rock band ZZ Top, who, in the mid-1970s and again in the mid-1980s were one of America’s biggest bands.
“ZZ Top was one part storytelling and two-parts archeology,” said Dunn, who is screening and promoting his film in late summer and fall around the USA. “I was nine years old when the Eliminator [the 1983 multi-platinum ZZ Top album] hit TV, Much Music in Canada. ‘Who is this band?’ ‘Are they even real?’ When we started working on the film, I was stuck on this concept.”
As the regimented research process unfolded for Dunn and Banger Films, they began to comprehend that the mystique surrounding the band is in fact the story. “The manager had a specific strategy—very limited photos, film cameras; it was very hard to find information,” Dunn revealed, noting that he began unraveling the untold tale behind the band. “Who these guys really are, and how did they get to that point in 1983? In the mid-1980s, they were a household name. No one knew who they were. That was the journey of making the film.”
To appropriately tell the true story behind the band was a three-year undertaking for Dunn and his core group. “We asked them to crack open their attics and allow [us] to look at all of the photographs of when they were kids and teenagers,” Dunn explained. “Slowly, we gathered enough archives. The first piece of moving footage with sound wasn’t [shot] until 1976. We had to find other visual representations.”
Over the 15 years since Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Banger Films has assembled a skilled team of visual researchers, adept at locating critical materials for each project and handling the necessary licensing involved. Additionally, Banger boasts an in-house music supervisor and graphics teams both in-house and out-of-house. “We are trying to find subtle but artistic ways to treat that imagery in the film,” Dunn described about the ZZ Top project, among others. “You are opening people’s scrapbooks—in many cases, old material. It’s become a big part of how we tell the story.”
With a staff of 40 people, Banger also includes creative directors Dunn and longtime film partner Scot McFadyen, plus a vice-president of production, and staffers in business affairs, development, and post-production. Eight edit suites occupy their Toronto offices. “It’s such a hugely collaborative effort,” Dunn detailed of Banger’s projects. “We started by doing one feature film at a time. Metal Evolution in 2011 was the first series. For series work, you need that many more bodies to get the job done. Now, typically, [we have] three or four productions going on at once.”
Starting in early 2016, after an email from ZZ Top’s manager Carl Stubner asking if Dunn might be interested in a ZZ Top project, Dunn took meetings with the band’s members, including guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard. “Slowly, over time, as I got to know them, the process got a bit easier,” Dunn confessed. “This was a band that wasn’t used to sitting down and telling their life story. It worked out [for the] 50th anniversary of the band. Billy is the silent architect of the film; he works in mysterious ways. It was a tough journey sometimes.”
For the first six-to-seven years of Banger’s existence, cable television’s VH1 Classic screened all of their projects. Now, with MTV and VH1 having overhauled all of their programming, Banger is looking to other manners of releasing its films and series. Theatrical screenings of ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas are taking place at 100 different US theaters, including special screenings at ZZ Top performances.
Going forward, Banger has a new slate of projects in various stages of production, including three seasons of Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix, with a fourth planned. Another documentary music series is planned for Netflix in 2020. Additionally, a feature-length documentary on 1970s-1980s heavy metal band Triumph is underway. Notably, Triumph is much lesser known than fellow 1970s-bred Toronto power trio Rush, but is one of the top unsung bands of the period.
“I’m biased because I’m Canadian,” quipped Dunn who is currently in the throes of making the Triumph film, scheduled for 2020. It will concern Triumph’s rise, and perhaps even importantly, their break-up at the peak of their powers; their final album was released in 1987. “It was never explained to the fans why that happened—they called it quits,” Dunn detailed.