History of the Eagles Part 1: Sundance Review

History of the Eagles

U.S.A. (Director: Alison Ellwood)

Using never-before-seen home movies, archival footage and new interviews with all current and former members of the Eagles, this documentary provides an intimate look into the history of the band and the legacy of their music.

The first half of a two-part Eagles doc surely contains 90 percent of the worthy material.

Alison Ellwood's first installment of a two-part biography covers the band's career up to its 1980 breakup.

PARK CITY -- A solid, safe biography of one of the world's most successful bands, Alison Ellwood's History of the Eagles Part 1 will remind nonfanatics how many omnipresent singles this group released in just seven years; for those who don't need that reminder, it offers the chance to see bandmates past and present (along with a fair number of peers) reminiscing on a record-by-record basis.

TV viewership should be strong, though one has to ask -- as Part 1 covers everything through the 1980 breakup, who wants to see Part 2, which covers the reunion? It's one thing to sell millions of copies of a mediocre record to old fans who haven't bought new music in a decade to persuade them to pay record-high ticket prices for reunion gigs; it's another thing entirely to get them to watch a film about that exploit.

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Ellwood interviews both the band's current members and those who fell by the wayside but doesn't pretend there aren't two who are substantially more important: Glenn Frey and Don Henley are the only members whose childhoods are covered here -- Frey's Detroit youth exposing him to Motown hits, Henley's Texas upbringing offering Hank Williams and tantalizing radio broadcasts from neighboring Louisiana.

After early musical efforts, both made their way to Los Angeles (Kenny Rogers drops in here to explain his role), where for a time Frey lived in Echo Park with Jackson Browne illegally renting the basement below him. Frey recalls that hearing Browne get up every morning and play the same verse dozens of times convinced him songwriting was all about "elbow grease."

Browne shows up for some scene-setting here, as do David Geffen and the band's producers and manager. Notably absent is Linda Ronstadt, who gave Henley and Frey an early opportunity to break out of the Troubadour scene and make some money on the road. Ronstadt does show up in good vintage interviews, though, alongside plenty of period footage of the Eagles onstage and off.

Little if anything in this chronological rundown will surprise fans, unless the surprise is in how little emphasis is given to bad behavior. Yes, there was that time with Joe Walsh and John Belushi, wreaking havoc in Chicago; yeah, there was some cocaine. The latter topic amounts to something like a minute of screen time; the former, at least, is a great story. (Walsh, the band's designated prankster and hotel-room-wrecker, recalls that "one of the most terrifying things ever was when Keith Moon decided he liked me.")

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If the film acknowledges Frey and Henley's prominence, it does make room for their colleagues: Anecdotes about the births of "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane" make it clear those songs wouldn't exist without guitarists Don Felder and Walsh. But not all the musical illustrations are that valuable: Not to pick on Randy Meisner, who comes off as a decent fellow, but do we really need to hear an explanation of the lyrics to "Take It to the Limit"?

Production Company: Mohegan Pictures
Director: Alison Ellwood
Producer: Alex Gibney
Executive producer: Blair Foster
Directors of photography: Maryse Alberti, Sam Painter
Editor: Alison Ellwood, Ben Sozanksi
No rating, 120 minutes