Directed by: Alison Ellwood. I came across this one in I suspect the exact same way as everyone who saw it—by flipping around Netflix, bored out of my skull, and seeing a title called The History of the Eagles, and thinking to myself, how can I resist a 3 1/2 hour documentary about the Eagles? Now, I’ll take it as read that if you’re reading this, you’re already into the Eagles. If somehow, somebody from the perplexing anti-Eagles camp (and there really is a very strong and vocal anti-Eagles lobby out there who for some reason are not content to simply ignore what they don’t like but feel the need to voice their anti-Eagles opinion as if it were as important as climate change or gender equality) wandered into this post and is expecting a step-by-step argument for why they should like the Eagles instead of hating them, that’s not what this is going to be. If the songs don’t register in you as great songs, then let’s just forget about it. For the rest of us, this is a really decadent, long, in-depth look at one of the biggest bands in music history. And, okay, this is where I actually will engage with the anti-Eagles lobby for a second. Because even if you’re not interested in the music (and why wouldn’t you be?), this doc is a super interesting look at how baby-boomer 70’s “Classic Rock” canonization/hagiography works. Like millions, I grew up being fed the “greatest generation” spiel from my baby-boomer parents about how their generation was the best one ever—not because they endured a depression and fought a war, but because they grew their hair longer and partied harder than any generation before, and because they were alive when some really exceptional pop/rock music was new. In other words, they were there when Classic Rock was just new music on the radio. And there is an absurd and deeply enduring mythology in our culture that says that because of that fact of musical timing, that generation has an inherent greatness that rubs off on every skullet-wearing, suburb-dwelling has-been. And the joke’s on fools like me, who still really enjoy that music, because whenever some giant, corporate, millionaire baby-boomer band comes to town, the only people who can afford a ticket are people who are 60 + years old, living on a corporate pension, who only go to one or two $250-per-ticket concerts per year.
So really, Eagles haters, what is super fascinating to me is probably the exact thing that makes this band repellant to you. The Eagles exist at that point where the spirit of the 60’s, all of the good shit that was supposed to validate the baby-boomer generation, was long gone, and the only thing that was left was greed, fame, and cocaine. There’s that beautiful quote from Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he’s talking about the instant nostalgia for the idealistic 60’s, and how it’s already gone (pun fully embraced) by the early 70’s, in the Nixon years, and it sums up why his seemingly incoherent and excessive ode to excess is actually really beautiful and profound:
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”
He’s writing about the era of the Eagles. The Beatles are done, and it’s the time of the Eagles, you know? And all of that excess and cocaine could just as easily be encapsulated by Fleetwood Mac, and it was, but there was some kind of tenderness in Fleetwood, possibly (I’m sorry) because of the presence of women in the group. Fleetwood was about relationships, literally, in a way that the Eagles were all about a bunch of solitary dudes—hairy, sweaty, dudes going it alone, and jostling around the stage with their giant ego-dicks and 3-part guitar harmonies and good-old-time country licks. And this documentary shows that beautifully. The rise of the Eagles is the point at which baby-boomer culture looked at itself in the mirror too long, and instead of reforming itself and embracing punk and post-punk and hip-hop and the vibrancy and energy of the 80’s and eventually beyond, instead decided to keep looking back, to mythologize all of those old forms, and to embrace the invention of “classic rock” as a way of perpetually patting itself on the back, not, remember, for any great accomplishment, but for having been young once, and for having been young once while a certain kind of music was made. Before, that music was important because it was going to change the world. “For What’s it’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods, and for that matter, “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles, all of that was supposed to topple walls. There was supposed to be a 1989 Berlin Wall moment for the baby-boomers, and the sounds of Pete Townsend’s excessively loud quadruple Marshall stack would shake the foundations of the old world. But none of that shit actually happened. The Berlin Wall came down, but the baby-boomers were at home, watching it on TV, listening to “Hotel California.” So you either drop the act, accept that your generation was no greater than any other, (and in fact, was kind of shittier and more self-indulgent and useless than a lot of others) or you take the easy way, steep yourself in corporate-branded mythology about that perceived greatness, and back it up, in the absence of facts, with an assertion, an authoritative patriarchal assertion, that it was all great because it happened a long time ago, and things from the 60’s and 70’s were inherently great. The end.
This is why the Eagles are so interesting, because they exist at that space where none of that shit is believable. They’re like the Band without anything ambiguous or elusive, where they all survived to become stadium-sized rock stars instead of fading into dignified obscurity. There’s no Last Waltz for the Eagles, they just kept getting bigger and bigger and then fragmenting into solo careers, and then re-forming and doing reunion shows and making godawful new albums. Again, all that’s left is sweaty egotistical millionaires drowning in cocaine and prostitutes, elbowing each other for credit and stage space and glory, and surviving to tell the tale. And this is why this documentary is so interesting, because it shows all of this up front, in an intentionally flattering way, but actually really un-flattering way, and it shines a light right on all the parts that are supposed to be glorious, so we can see all the little moral cockroaches scurrying for cover. This doc is brilliant for wrapping up the “real” documentary when the band breaks up, rolling the credits, and then keeping going for another hour, to show us the birth of Classic Rock radio, having the band acknowledge it, showing us the Eagles hits played in car stereos all over the modern world, completely void of context, utterly postmodern, and utterly absurd and meaningless, as all of that music is now rendered to the modern subject. This is the only way that I’ve ever known classic rock music, and it is absurd, and it is self-indulgent, and it is a jerk-off, and yet I still listen because…the songs are very pleasant to listen to!
So really, that’s the only difference between an Eagles fan and an Eagles hater, predictably—the music. I still think it’s a mistake to let all of that negative shit blind you to the enjoyment of those great hits, but for the record, I do see all of that shit. But to me it just enriches everything, and this doc enriches it even more, to have more fuel to understanding just how awful Don Henley and Glenn Frey were, how petty and small and egotistical they were. (And yes, it’s very sad that Glenn Frey passed away shortly after I saw this, but the observation stands.) We certainly don’t need to praise the Eagles—the millions of dollars they made are reward enough. But for me and millions of others, I can’t ignore what I experience with my own senses—they were all awful, they represented something really awful in our culture, and they made fantastic music while they were doing it.