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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

THE HISTORY OF THE EAGLES: THE STORY OF AN AMERICAN BAND - NOT A PICNIC, BUT BEYOND WORTH WATCHING



This review comes courtesy of Read On Read Now. The Eagles were then and are to this day the definers of the music of my youth. I can legitimately say I love their music without falling into the pit of idol worship. Showtime's two part documentary is a superb piece of storytelling, although why they felt a need to make this into two parts is a sorry example of extending a story that didn't need the extension. The second part only runs 1:10, so it easily could have been edited and placed into the original night of programming. The second half is mostly a look at the solo careers of Don Henley and Glenn Frey; and we get to see the big reveal as to how the band reunited in 1994. Show me the money, although I honestly believe that creative instincts played a role in their reunion as well. It would be difficult for anyone not to recognize what those voices, combined, sounded like, although they were a weaker vocal group without Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon.




"The History of the Eagles - The Story of an American Band" is a solid overall look at the single most significant act of the 1970's. They are in the top five of the biggest selling artists in history, so their record sales spell out their commercial success. "Their Greatest Hits" album is the biggest selling album of the 20th Century. They were often dismissed from a critical perspective, but time has been on their side.

Alison Ellwood directs "The History of the Eagles" in a song by song fashion with an enormous emphasis placed on Henley and Frey. They are the only two people who get a "where did I come from" treatment. We know they are the authority figures of the band (they make that very clear), but the complete dismissal of the other band members' lives is insulting, but I suspect that neither of them care. This is a complete execution - set from on high.



For years, Henley was seen as the big bad guy in the band, but this documentary shows Frey as the band-mate who seemingly can't get along in the sandbox (even more so than Henley). He is ultimately the person who fires Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and Don Felder. Is it always someone else's fault? As the greatest American band ever - they should have listened to their own words - "Get Over It." Although, David Geffen (I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in their meetings) gets in the single best dig of all. He refers to Henley as a malcontent. He says it two times. I suspect this may all be a badge of honor for these folks. Henley and Frey, that is. In the end, it is sanitized. If you have read their biographies you know this is sanitized.

Felder recently hinted that Henley and Frey pretend that they were best buddies and clearly that wasn't their foundational relationship or their ongoing Eagles relationship. If you doubt their comfort zone with one another go and watch their interview with Steve Croft from 60 Minutes. Squirm time arrives. Seriously, go and watch that interview. Thankfully, we get the comic relief of Joe Walsh. Not only is Walsh funny, but he clearly has a sweetness to him that I've never seen displayed before. Loved when he vocalized "that one of the most terrifying things ever was when Keith Moon decided he liked me." Walsh clearly gets along well in the sandbox. In the end, the most impressive aspect of Walsh's contributions in the documentary is his wisdom. Yes, his wisdom. Some of the most profound statements in the entire three plus hours come from the mind of Joe Walsh.

Randy Meisner is treated as an afterthought in much of the three plus hours -- which is appalling. Meisner was one of the best bass players in rock history. He composed a lot of songs. He could hit notes that a Basset Hound couldn't hear and he was one of the cutest guys ever and I mean ever to stand before a microphone in any genre of music (sorry, but it counts). He sings lead on "Take It to the Limit" which means he needed to do nothing else; and that number one hit (their first) would secure him Eagles status for the balance of his days. The song has one of the great dramatic builds in all of rock history and that soaring climax breaks my heart to this day. He was obviously way in over his head and he is the one person in this documentary who sincerely had no business being in the entertainment industry.



The fact that Henley and Frey seemingly think they are a duo with sidemen is mean-spirited. Can you comprehend Paul McCartney or John Lennon dismissing George Harrison or Ringo Starr? Lennon famously said that they weren't four people, but one with four parts. McCartney's genuineness on the concept of a band shines through in the underwhelming Living in the Material World documentary. McCartney has talked a great deal over the last fifty years, but he has rarely actually said much, but he provides some profound commentary while waxing poetic about George Harrison in the aforementioned documentary.

Some of the finest moments in the entire documentary don't necessarily come from the Eagles, but from those they worked with. Glyn Johns, their first producer (who also produced the Rolling Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin) and Bill Szymczyk (their last producer - not counting them) have several insightful moments of memory. Szymczyk let them do all the things Johns wouldn't let them do. You wish there was more of both of them. Irving Azoff (their famed manager) pops up quite frequently. I met Azoff years ago at a World Music Awards taping in Las Vegas. At the time he was managing Christina Aguilera and I managed to get him to talk for about three minutes. Of course, I went on and on about the Eagles. I was truthful in my admiration (it's about the music), so I didn't falsely tell tales, but I must admit he was engaging and after that three minutes I couldn't get him to move on. He likes to chat.

The big plus in this retrospective - no talking heads. You don't have to sit through "rock historians" and assorted other folks that examined their career, their songs or their lives. The only people that pop up for commentary are those that worked closely with them. The second part does end on a strange note with two - only two comments closing out the documentary. We hear thoughts from then and current California Governor, Jerry Brown; and for some reason the last person we see is Stevie Nicks. I am a huge fan of Nicks', but why does she get the last word?

Henley opens the documentary speaking back in the 1970s by saying this is "not something you can do forever;" and of course the intimacy of the truth is literally staring you in the face for an evening of viewing. When Glyn Johns first encountered them in a British studio he almost gave up on them since he initially wasn't impressed. Just as he was about to depart from their existence he heard what he heard and that was perfect harmony. Literally, by the way. He heard them singing together and that was that. Henley, Frey, Meisner and Leadon. That group of four still reigns on high vocally.

There are other great harmonizing acts, but even the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees and Crosby, Stills and Nash aren't fit to tie the shoelaces of the Eagles. Their voices were stunningly beautiful. When I hear "Seven Bridges Road" I still get goosebumps up my spine. All these years later, it is a delightful moment in life to hear the Eagles sing. They were superbly talented songwriters, arrangers and musicians, but they are the voices that mattered for multiple numbers of listeners to the music.



"The History of the Eagles" is one of the best documentaries ever produced on any music artist. By the time it ends you feel like you know them. In spite of themselves, you are glad you got to know them. You probably wouldn't want to hang out with all of them, but you are glad you were taken down their road. Just go and play some of their music. Keep in mind, every time you download their songs - you make them richer (the songwriters get richer). Thankfully, I've got their catalog. They were second only to the Beatles and I assume a Kennedy Center Honors is on the way. How did the Brits get that honor before the Eagles? The Who and Led Zeppelin have already been rewarded (not that this stuff means anything). For better, for worse you can't get more American than the Eagles.

Watch it and enjoy. This is a straight A for Eagle fans. If you want the inside track to a somewhat shady business you will have an education in three hours. If you don't like the music of the Eagles - what is wrong with your ears? My five favorite songs by the Eagles:

1) Take It To the Limit - Practical tears every time I hear it. Those notes! Loved Randy Meisner!



2) One of These Nights - One of the best pop songs of all-time.



3) Seven Bridges Road (live) - Harmony vocals don't get better than this.




4) Most Of Us Are Sad - Country/pop/rock on the mountaintop.

5) You Never Cry Like a Lover - (Lyrics are silly, but Henley's vocal is one of his defining moments).


The last time I saw the Eagles they played for three and a half hours. I broke my ankle exiting the building that night, but thankfully, the show was over and they had loitered supremely.

I cannot imagine not loving their music. The best band ever, next to the Beatles, that is! Copyright Read On Read Now 2013

3 comments:

Lisa said...

Heartfelt and brilliant review of this documentary! I'm not a music person but I certainly want to watch it now!

Ro from Chicago said...

The Eagles, in my opinion, ARE the best American band, ever. The music, and the singing...that harmony...is timeless. I have watched the documentary twice already. They are very interesting as a group and as individuals. It would have been nice to see them as nice guys, but they're just a group of human beings who experienced tremendous musical success. And with that came tons and tons of fame, money, and all kinds of excess. I am glad I was, and never will be, THAT famous or THAT rich. But I am also really glad that I could listen to their music anytime I want! It is still, after all these years, a breath of fresh air!
Ro from Chicago

Anonymous said...

Just got around to watching the documentary, and you nailed it. The whining was breathtaking, but kind of riveting. and you are correct, the other guys got short shrift. Too bad, and it seemed they were clueless as to what a jewel they had.

Christi from TX