“Ninety percent of the time, being in the Eagles was a fucking blast,” says a square-jawed, movie-star-handsome, 64-year-old Glenn Frey in the opening minutes of The History of the Eagles, a two-part, three-hour documentary airing tonight and Saturday on Showtime. Frey delivers the line with the stoned-faced ebullience of an asshole father sarcastically praising his son’s tackling after Friday night’s big game; he’s so stern that the sentiment verges on unintended irony.
The moment sets the tone for the rest of this engrossing, not-quite-forthright “authorized” biography of one of the most popular rock bands in the history of mankind: The History of the Eagles is illuminating, only if you know how to read between the lines.
Back in the ’70s, when the record industry was enjoying the first blush of its big-money salad days, the Eagles typified expertly crafted, universally pleasant, and defiantly crowd-pleasing rock music. And yet, at the band’s core, there was always a pitch-black joylessness. This dichotomy makes the Eagles fascinating, if not exactly likable. Every classic-rock band has a “dark” segment of their narrative arc that arrives once the euphoric effects of fame and drugs wear off, and the reality that you’re still the same fucked-up bunch of people sets in. There’s plenty of that in History, as you would expect from an Eagles doc — as Don Henley says at one point, the in-fighting and money-grubbing that reigned inside the Eagles’ camp was foregrounded into each of their albums. The Eagles chronicled their loss of innocence, song by incriminating song, and listeners used it to soundtrack their own willful self-corruption.