People fell in love to Eagles music. They also broke up to it. They took spontaneous road trips to it, many of them through Winslow, Ariz., looking for the girl (my Lord) in that flatbed Ford. They brawled to it. They worked on their cars to it. They piloted space shuttles to it. It can’t help but make you think of ice chests and summertime, girls in tube tops and their shaggy-haired boyfriends. When listening to an Eagles song, “Everybody remembers a ’70s that they may or may not have had,” says J.D. Souther, a songwriter who collaborated with the band and watched it rise to the top.
The film beautifully depicts that “Almost Famous” feeling. Vivid footage from the band’s earliest days and chartered-jet apex is illuminated by hindsight, memory and some lingering resentments. “Later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time it don’t,” says Joe Walsh, the guitarist who replaced original member Bernie Leadon in 1975 — just before the Eagles began recording their legendary “Hotel California” album.
Most of “History of the Eagles” is rich in detail and bemused reflection, perhaps because sobriety has worked wonders on some of the band members’ sense of recall. Frey, Walsh and Don Henley are wonderful storytellers. In only the film’s third hour, Saturday night’s conclusion, does the story take on extra bloat, as the Eagles reunite for an endless series of victory laps and arena shows through the late ’90s and 2000s in their Just for Men, relaxed-fit-denim era.
The first two hours, however, accomplish what all rockumentaries should, reveling in the basic miracle that opposite talents — Michigan-raised Frey and East Texan Henley — would meet and befriend each other, latch onto a certain sound, and set aside their differences to create a decade’s worth of hits.
The words “rare footage” are music to the ears of a certain sort of rock fan, and “History of the Eagles” has that to spare, including scenes from a 1977 concert in Washington. The film also nimbly recounts the ways the band contributed to (and capitalized on) the emergence of a Southern California country-rock sound 40 years ago. Frey recalls what it was like to live in a Los Angeles apartment above a young Jackson Browne, overhearing the singer-songwriter diligently trying to finish “Doctor My Eyes,” day after agonizing day. It taught Frey how hard it is to write a song — and made him realize that he would always need other musicians to help him do it.