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The History of the Eagles: American Dream or American Nightmare?

The Eagles / Photo via Sundance

History of the Eagles, Part One: It’s a fact that Their Greatest Hits by the Eagles is tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the top selling album in the United States, like, ever. But the thing is, even though this two-hour documentary (and that’s just Part One) was conceived of by the band members themselves, it ain’t about their triumphs — not exactly. That’s because Glenn Frey and Don Henley hired Allison Ellwood (Magic Trip, PBS’ American High) and Alex Gibney (Gonzo, Enron) for the job, two real-deal documentarians who agreed to take on the project only if they could tell the truth.

In the second shot, Henley is backstage circa Hotel California, and he very seriously says, “It’s something that you can’t do forever. This is not a lifetime career, you know.” That line got genuine guffaws from the crowd at the premiere (it helped that the Eagles had already been spotted in a line of seats near the front, and were sticking around for a surprise Q&A afterward), but it was hugely indicative of the group’s surprisingly precarious reality: for nearly every triumph, there was trouble. If it wasn’t women and drugs, it was egos and infighting, internal pressures about the band’s direction or external drama having to do with labels and lawsuits. Ellwood and Gibney depict the downs as well as they do the ups thanks to input from each of the band’s former members (some scorned), plus other ex-allies like David Geffen. 

While the Eagles came to be the most mainstream distortion of the California folk-rock dream, they were very much of that scene, and the early part of the film is rich with talk (and shots, of course) of the Troubadour, Laurel Canyon, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. And as the band discovers wild success on their way toward burning out in 1980, the rock’n’roll lore ramps up as well: we watch their infamous peyote-fueled desert quest to capture the cover art of their debut LP; we see previously unreleased Super 8 footage from their “third encore” afterparties with groupies; we marvel over the myriad methods guitarist Joe Walsh employed to destroy hotel rooms. 

And after two hours fleshed out with incredible concert footage and extensive interviews (with Walsh playing the comedic foil to Henley’s incredible self-seriousness), we witness the utter implosion of a band of “alphas” who discovered, in Henley’s words, the “fine line between the American Dream and the American Nightmare.” So even if, in the parlance of the Dude, you “hate the fucking Eagles, man,” you’ll find something to love here. Part Two is set to pick up when the band reunites in 1994. It’ll all be coming to Showtime in February.

See also: The Eagles May Tour Again, Surprise Sundance Q&A Reveals

The more music-oriented half of SPIN’s Sundance team also got to check out a few narrative films:

Mud: The tale of Ellis and Neckbone, a couple of preteen Arkansas swamp rats who have plans to turn a boat they found marooned up a tree into their personal hideaway. The thing is, someone’s already had the same idea, and he’s got got a little bit more to hide from than a splintering family or the lack of one entirely. Oh, and his name is Mud — alias, at least, as Matthew McConaughey’s charming character is on the run not only from the law, but from a modern day posse out to turn blood into gold. 

But Mud believes in love and luck, and the good-hearted Ellis so desperately needs to renew his faith in those things too (his rather sweet parents are splitting up) that he’s quick to help his island-exiled new pal, even after learning the nature of Mud’s crime. As for Neckbone, the foul-mouthed, straight-shooting orphan with a goofy philandering uncle (an awesomely executed about-face by Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Shannon), one gets the feeling that adventure erupts wherever he walks. He’s played by Jacob Lofland, the genuine Arkansan article hand-selected by director Jeff Nichols (2011’s excellent Take Shelter) for the role. A first-timer, yes, but he delivers half of the film’s quotables — half of those simply being the word “sheeeeit” — and is the perfect foil to Tye Sheridan’s Ellis (Tree of Life), who is imbued with a heroic sense of chivalry and rightness. 

Three love-lines and a slight thread about urbanization weave in and out of the main yarn just fine, but the strength of the story is the Huck Finn-like fun and poignancy that comes from these three unlikely allies working so hard to unmoor that dried up old ark so that Mud can be reunited with the woman he’d do anything for. Oh, and big time bonus points for whoever it was that put Neckbone in a vintage Fugazi tee.

Sightseers: The first recognizable song you’ll hear in this blackest of British black comedies is Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” While the ’80s classic’s beep-beep-like beats and lines about getting away match well with the scene of a thirtysomething couple leaving small-town mundanity behind in their campervan, the track’s title goes a long way to describing the odd relationship of Chris and Tina. 

Steve Oram and Alice Lowe are not only the film’s stars but its writers too, and they seem to take peculiar delight in playing a pair of characters whose increasingly dirty deeds render them genuinely unlikeable fairly quickly. Tina simply appears sheltered and slow-witted at first, and Chris a bit neurotic and self-centered, but their young love is cute enough to convince, and their week-long road trip is what-could-possibly-go-wrong geeky. Yet, somehow, on a mission to visit a tramcar conservatory and a pencil museum, they discover their inner despicable selves whilst leaving a terrible wake of death and destruction quite literally in their tracks. 

“We don’t care about being fair, do we?” Tina asks at one point before answering her own query: “We just care about being happy.” Minutes later Chris reveals his M.O. just as tellingly, musing, “I just want to be feared and respected. That’s not too much to ask, is it?” God help anyone who gets in the way of these two trying to sync up their cockeyed desires. Clever cracks, cartoonish gore and ridiculous sexual scenarios sweeten this odd odyssey, but once Chris and Tina become unrelatable (about halfway in), the appeal of the thing has more to do with waiting for the inevitable moment when the charming trailer trip becomes an irreparable train wreck. Director Ben Wheatley hasn’t quite scored a crossover success here, but the twisted mix of dark humor and itchy anxiety could warrant Sightseers its own cult in time.