Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: The History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band - Not a Peaceful Easy Feeling, but Well Worth the Watch

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. The History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band is a superb piece of storytelling. The first half is so well told you feel as if you have been transported back to another time. The second half of the documentary 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 believe 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. Both Meisner and Leadon were gone by the time they reunited. Fortunately, Leadon is touring with the Eagles on the current two year world tour.

"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. They were often dismissed from a critical perspective, but time has been on their side. They are now an iconic name in music history. The only two bands that sold more records were the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

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. For years I assumed Henley was 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. He is ultimately the person who fires Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and Don Felder. Is it always someone else's fault?

Frey may be perceived as a jerk, but Henley doesn't escape the mean-spirited act that the band has been famous for. At one point in the documentary, Henley refers to Felder as "Mr. Felder." Petty, catty and ice-filled. They sound like stereotypical high school girls. 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. In the end, it is sanitized. If you have read their biographies, their interviews or have followed their history you know this is sanitized.

Felder recently hinted that Henley and Frey pretend 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. It's on YouTube. Prepare to be uncomfortable.

A large dilemma that faces the band is when Frey and Henley demand to make more money. It's arguable in many different directions. On the one hand, why shouldn't they make more money? On the other hand, why should they make more money? John Lennon and Paul McCartney never asked Brian Epstein if they could make more money than George Harrison or Ringo Starr. By virtue of their compositions they did make more money, but they never asked for more for the recordings or for their performances, which unfortunately ended in August, 1966.

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. For one, 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 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. Listen to his backing vocals. His closing high note on Desperado. His first half of harmony on Take It Easy. That voice is all over their songs. I could keep going. He is missed. 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. "Two girls and a bottle of tequila." That's a description of one of his moments before he and the band decided to part ways. Talented musician who deserved better.

Randy Meisner has suffered from health problems for the last several years. Credible reports indicate he has vascular issues. Randy Meisner is physically unable to join his former band mates on the current two year world tour that will celebrate 41 years of the music of the Eagles. Genuine sadness. I loved his voice and that gorgeous Nebraska born face. Stop and think of Randy Meisner, his wife and his children. Fortunately, by all accounts, via their (Henley and Frey) interviews, Randy Meisner would have been welcomed back for the tour had he been physically able to carry on.

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 a few years ago at a World Music Awards taping in Las Vegas. At the time I was working for ABC and 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, 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 (Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers) 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 (they were gloriously gifted - listen to anything at all, but particularly their Pet Sounds collection, but they still aren't the Eagles), the Bee Gees (those voices, but still...), 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.This may very well be the best documenaty ever made on a music act. It's highly entertaining. 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. Thankfully, I've got their catalog and I still have a poster of them hanging on my library/office wall. I've had it in my life for almost all of my life. 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? The Eagles had it all. Gifted songwriters, superb musicians, awe-inspiring vocals and they were the hottest guys in one band in the history of rock music.

My five favorite songs by the Eagles:
1) Take It To the Limit - Practical tears every time I hear it. Those notes reached! Literal masterpiece of rock/pop music.
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 - Henley's vocal is one of his defining  moments.
6) Peaceful Easy Feeling - They didn't write this one, but it's a stunning song.
7) Desperado - I almost pull off the road to listen to it, as to not be distracted by anything.
8) The Sad Cafe - Haunting, mellow drama without the drama.
9) Hotel California - The average person born between 1955-1965 has probably heard this song at least 2000 times, but for some reason it never bores.
10) Hole in the World - Written years after their heyday, but it is as good as any of their young life compositions.

Best solo song by an Eagle:
The Heart of the Matter - Nothing even comes close to this song. This song is to ballads as what Audrey Hepburn is to style and elegance. The lyrical content is from another time. In our dumbed down world, this deeply heartfelt ode to something gone would never be played on radio today, let alone become a hit of any significance.

Their songs are indeed timeless. Peaceful Easy Feeling (Glenn Frey - lead vocal), Take It Easy (Glenn Frey - lead vocal), Desperado (Don Henley - lead vocal) and every other song gathered in their respective hit collections are worthy music pieces; and they should retain their distinction of consequential music well into the balance of this century.

The last time I saw the Eagles they played for three hours and 45 minutes. I broke my ankle exiting the building that night, but thankfully, the show was over and they had loitered supremely.

The greatest American band - ever.  Country, ballad, harmony pop/rock existed before the Eagles, but they took it to heights that no one has ever even come close to duplicating and they took it to the bank. In conclusion, they were also the best looking rock band that ever laid down a track. Rock on.

Copyright Read On Read Now 2013