History of the Eagles (2013)
On my last birthday, I went to an Eagles' concert at the MGM in Las Vegas. I didn't show my age. And, after 40 years as a group, neither did they.
Don Henley's voice was strong, clear, and intense, and the Eagles rocked. They played memorable hit after memorable hit. They took us on an exhilarating, harmonic trip into the past.
A journey that may be even more affecting than one of their remarkable concerts is the terrific 2-part documentary History of the Eagles.
It takes us back to the childhoods of Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the evolution of the Eagles, and beyond. When History of the Eagles is over, you're left basking in the afterglow of the best kind of a dream. It's an experience that reverberates with creative humanity.
The best aspect of History of the Eagles is its emphasis on creativity. We share the experience of how Eagles' songs were created - the irrepressible collaboration.
Glenn Frey tells of learning how to write songs when he lived in an apartment in Echo Park, California, and Jackson Browne lived in a cheap room underneath.
Browne would wake up early and play the same line over and over, almost ad nauseam. Frey learned about writing songs "through Jackson's ceiling and my floor." He came to realize, "So that's how you do it. Elbow grease, time, thought, persistence."
Henley grew up in Linden, Texas, which had one traffic light. His parents, although poor, bought him a drum set, and saved money for him to go to college. He attended West Texas State for 3 1/2 years. He flunked his only course in music, but was an English major. Of course.
Frey was helped in Detroit by Bob Seger, who loved his sense of humor, and Henley was aided in Texas by Kenny Rogers, who Henley sweet-talked into attending a gig by his band, and then Henley went to LA and lived with Rogers for four months.
Frey and Henley met in California. There is some lovely footage of a youthful Joni Mitchell, Carole King and James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt. The influential club Troubadour looms large.
Frey and Henley backed up Ronstadt, and she was a major factor in their ascendancy. Later Ronstadt's version of "Desperado" redeemed a song that originally had failed. It eventually became a signature song for the Eagles, and was the potent finale at the concert I attended. It made the entire audience feel like blessed desperados.
Both Frey and Henley are very articulate in History of the Eagles. They give us compelling insights into the band. As do Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, et al.
In History of the Eagles, Henley comes through virtually unscathed. He remains a bit enigmatic, but on occasion he flashes his infectious smile. Obviously some of his less attractive moments aren't in the film.
The band's romantic entanglements with females are avoided. There are swarms of females, but no specifics about personal relationships with them.
Frey says, "Don and I both tried to have relationships while we were members of the Eagles, but it was always like the Eagles trumped everything."
But this doesn't mean the documentary avoids all conflicts. Don Felder gets trashed like a hotel room. The disdain Frey has for Felder - whom he considers out only for himself - is palpable. Frey calls Felder, "the only asshole in the band." Henley simply refers to him as, "Mr. Felder."
There is stunning footage and sound from a benefit concert in Long Beach, California, in 1980, for Senatorial candidate Alan Cranston. On stage, while performing, Frey and Felder cursed at each other, and Frey's anger escalated. The engineer recorded it, and we experience venomous conflict.
The Eagles disbanded after that concert. Frey says that at first cocaine was "a writing tool." But "in the end cocaine brought out the worst in everyone."
They had just gone through a long ordeal of creating the album The Long Run, and the run was over. It crashed in spite, rancor, and exhaustion.
Despite the ultimate unraveling, the first part of The History of the Eagles has a spirit of innocence and intimacy before the inevitable collapse. The power of youthful creativity is transcendent.
Part 2 of History of the Eagles doesn't have innocence, but - like William Blake, it has songs of experience. And a telling experience it was.
Both Glenn Frey and Don Henley had productive individual careers. Frey emphasizes the "fun" he experienced. But the Eagles still lived, as radio regularly played their music for the fourteen years they were apart.
Henley says, "We could have a second act. We could have a second chance."
Travis Tritt got the former Eagles together for Tritt's own rendition of "Take It Easy" in his Common Thread album, and the door came ajar.
Frey still was reluctant about restarting the band. When rehab brought redemption to Joe Walsh, it helped the Eagles regain their energy and style. Although they were fearful, they got together for an MTV appearance, and then an international tour. The Eagles soared once more.
Veteran documentary director Alison Ellwood (Alex Gibney produced) has composed a canny mix of authentic footage, home movies, and deft imagery.
When Frey mentions Jackson Browne's tea pot, Ellwood shows a steaming tea pot; when Walsh talks about Keith Moon's destructions, Ellwood shows a car in a pool; when Leadon talks about pouring a bottle of beer on Frey's head, we see beer spilling. We see a bottle smashing against a wall, and a guitar smashing against a wall.
In one of the most memorable shots in the film Frey talks about the band going out to Joshua Tree to shoot an album cover, after taking peyote, and they see an eagle.
Frey stretches out his arms. Ellwood has a shot of a majestic eagle soaring through the sky. Frey says it's as though the eagle is looking down and saying to them, "Eagles, huh? I don't think so."
It's an eloquent shot in an eloquent movie.
There was and is a universality to the band. Jackson Browne says, "Someone told me people didn't just listen to the Eagles, they did things to the Eagles."
Bob Seger says, "I think the thing that brings them [the Eagles] together is the harmony. When they start hearing that... they get as thrilled as the audience."
Frey says, "In this second run, I think I've done a pretty good job... So here we are."
And Henley says, "Rock and roll saved my life. Changed my life."
Rock and roll and the Eagles mirrored much of the lives of those who listened to them.
I'm an easterner so "Hotel California" - though mythic - still was a bit distant. But "Lyin' Eyes" and Henley's "Boys of Summer" are personal anthems for me.
The Eagles live in both the present and the past.
History of the Eagles brings it all back.