After remaining notoriously mum for the majority of their career, the Eagles let the world in on Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of The History of the Eagles Part 1. "We were very private," Don Henley said at a press conference for the movie. (Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit were also present for the premiere.) "We didn't allow access. We tried to keep it in-house. But we had the foresight to film some backstage stuff. And that's in the film."
The rockumentary, directed by Alison Ellwood and produced by Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), uncovers the band's personal Super 8 footage, photographs and tape from a never-finished Haskell Wexler documentary. Featuring interviews with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and David Geffen, the film follows the band from its Troubadour-filled beginnings in Southern California to its beer-bottle-throwing end in 1980. Acquired by Showtime, Part 1 will air on February 15th at 8 p.m. EST, and Part 2 – which picks up with the band's 1994 reunion – will premiere February 16th at 8 p.m. EST.
Rolling Stone sat down with Don Henley on the eve of the film's Sundance debut. He talked about why they finally made the film (someone might die), what type of movie he wanted to see (an honest one) and how his bandmates still drive him nuts (but he's learned to live with it).
How did the movie come about? Did Glenn approach you on this?
I don’t know who brought it up first, probably our manager. Probably Irving Azoff said it’s time for you guys to do a documentary. We'd been kicking it around for a few years but we finally decided that the time had come and, after 42 years had passed, it was probably a good time to get it done, because we said it was a three-year process. We knew it was going to be time consuming so we thought we’d better get started. You know, at our age people keel over, and so we wanted to get it done.
What did you want to see come out of this? What was the ideal film that they’d make about you?
We wanted to see an honest look at who we are, and what the group is. And, as Glenn said at the [press conference], there have been a lot of misconceptions about this band and about how we got along or didn’t get along. And we wanted people to know how hard we worked and how hard we tried. From my own personal point of view, it's a wonderful thing for my kids to have because we all, most of us in the band, became fathers later in life and our kids don't really understand what happened. In some respects that's good, there's just some things they don't need to know about. But on the other hand, it's a wonderful portrait.
The film begins in our hometowns where Glenn and I were born and raised and what that was like, and our journey from our hometowns to California and that escape and all the dreams and aspirations that we had. And the desire to transcend your culture, to get out and not to abandon your culture, but to transcend it and to go out into a wider world and to see that and be a part of the wider world. I think kids in bands have that dream and athletes have that dream and it's one of the iconic American dreams, to get out of where you are and go somewhere and reinvent yourself. And this film would follow that story. So it's the story of that and a bunch of young guys who took a lot of risks. Big risks. A lot of my friends during that time had parents who were saying, you've got to get a haircut and get a real job. My parents never said that to me. I went to college for three and a half years and that made them happy, so when I decided to go to California, it was okay with them. And so, we gambled and we won and that's a very rare thing.
And another rare thing that happened to us, that I mention in the documentary, is we were fortunate enough to have one of the rarest of things in American life, which is a second act. We broke up for 14 years and came back and were bigger than ever. And we still pack arenas and stadiums even 42 years on. We fully realize how fortunate we are. We don't take credit for all that, some of it is just dumb luck. Some of it is being in the right place at the right time, being part of the very large boomer generation. And coming into contact with the right people, the right managers, the right attorneys, the right crew members, the right producers – there are a whole lot of people involved in this other than us.
What did you learn about yourself in pulling this project together and digging back into your life?
Some of it was painful – you know, the self-destructive behavior that a lot of young people go through. The insecurities, the fear, the feelings of unworthiness, we don't deserve this, and the feeling that it's all going to disappear up in smoke tomorrow. It's a dream I'm having and it's all going away. That sort of thing. And it was sort of painful to relive all of that. And of course the substance abuse was part of it, and of course all the time that was wasted that could have been more productive time. But hey, it was all a learning experience that made us the people who we are today. And the fact we survived it is a small miracle in and of itself. Nobody in this band has died.
What have you taken away from the process of making this film?
Well, one was a great sense of accomplishment, and another is an enormous sense of gratitude for everything that I've been given. So those are the two main things. And perspective, you know, it's wonderful to have a perspective on the past. The documentary is like a map and it certainly helps us to chart the future. 'Cause we intend to do this for a few more years, and a couple more years at least. But I think we all learned a lot by looking back at this film.
What’s your relationship with the band like after making this film? Did it smooth over any rough patches?
Well, we've been back together since '94, we tour every year in some country. We don't necessarily tour in the United States all the time. We've been to China in the last couple of years, you know, South Africa. We've just all grown up a lot. We all have kids now, we're much more tolerant of each other and we accept each other for who we are, and our eccentricities and our quirks, and we still get mad. They still piss me off sometimes.
But you've learned to live with it?
You learn to pick your battles. Roll with it. You learn what to accept and what to let go, and what to challenge. We've gotten pretty good at that, because, you know, we all know that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. So we have much more perspective now, and perspective is a wonderful thing.
What will long-time Eagles fans learn from the film that they didn’t know before?
That a rock & roll band, even though it may be a creative entity, is also a business. And we became pretty good businessmen, and we had to in order to keep from getting screwed by the record companies, and now the internet service providers and all the digital people. You have to be a grownup at some level. You can't just leave it to the managers and the lawyers, you have to know what you are doing. It's wonderful just to be very childlike and skip through the daisies and write your little songs and play your little guitar, but there's a lot more to it than that. It's a hard-ass business. It's mean, it's nasty, it's dishonest, so we learned a lot about that.
It sounds like the film gives you an opportunity to answer the media to some degree.
And we also learned not to care so much about what the media thinks [laughs]. They didn't like Led Zeppelin either.
Photo by George Pimentel/Getty