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When bands get together for the final form of cashing in on their legacy—the music documentary—we expect some things. We expect them to be contrite about their foibles. We expect them to share their regrets over drug use. We expect them to welcome back old members to get over their differences, and we expect them to talk about how much they love their fans and loved being in the band and loved writing all the songs that people watching the documentary loved.
Which is why I contend that History of the Eagles is not only the best music documentary I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the truest and the realest. These guys, even after two cash in reunions that they needed to set aside their differences for—1994’s reunion tour and 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden—couldn’t muster even fake friendship with former members like Don Felder and Bernie Leadon. Don Henley and Glenn Frey (RIP) don’t appear on camera together, and the only good thing said between them is that Frey likes Henley’s voice. It’s the realest depiction of the rough truth of legacy rock bands: they are a business. They are not always a partnership, or a brotherhood, or alchemy between brilliant artists: rock music is a business, Jack, and the Eagles are Goldman Sachs.
But the real fireworks in the doc are between the band members, who clearly haven’t ley bygones be bygones. Leadon left the band before Hotel California, and he’s unrepentant about quitting over the band going more rock, and Henley and Frey act like him leaving didn’t matter at all. Henley refuses to call Don Felder by his first name; he calls him “Mr. Felder” throughout, particularly when he basically mocks the idea that he should have sought pay parity with him and Frey when the Eagles got back together in the ‘90s. Randy Meisner’s drug and alcohol problems are reduced to him just having stage fright over singing a song before he got kicked out. The only real relationship that seems to exist in the Eagles is between Henley and Frey and their love of making bank (and having Joe Walsh around as the band hound). And again, that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s reality, and it’s the fault of every other music doc for making the Eagles hating each other seem like an aberration.
If there’s a criticism to be lodged, it’s that the doc never really touches on the significant backlashes against the Eagles both in their time and in the years since they became the biggest American rock band of all time. Gram Parsons famously called them “plastic dry fuck,” and he gets a passing mention here for making country rock but they don’t mention he hated them. The Big Lebowski has hurt the Eagles worse than about anything else, and they don’t really come at that either.
But that’s the thing: History of the Eagles is a monolithic monument to the power of the Eagles as a business. They devote almost as much time to their contract squabbles with David Geffen, signing super manager Irving Azoff, and the press conferences bragging about how much money their reunion tour was making in the ‘90s, to the process of writing their albums. The triumph of the Eagles is a business fact more than it is musical. They don’t care that Gram Parsons hated them; people are still dry fucking to “Hotel California” while his solo music is often packaged as a single LP. The Dude hated them, but they could use “The Long Run” royalties to buy and destroy every DVD copy of that (overrated) movie.
The Eagles could have used their documentary to prove that they’re the most meaningful band in American rock. Instead, they used it to prove they’re the most brutally successful. And because of that, History of the Eagles is essential.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.