Cast: Adam Duritz, Courtney Love
Written & Directed by Don Henley
Once upon a time in the real world, right before Thanksgiving in the 1980th year of our lord to be precise, paramedics arrived at the home of the quintessence of the rock star to find two completely spaced, naked underaged teen girls attempting to digest an absurd dosage of Quaaludes and cocaine. Oops! Whacha gonna do ‘bout it, Don? Eh, sweep it under the rug, plead no contest, get a fine big enough to buy a rusted out Vega, and take a couple years probation. Whatevs.
Look, 1980 was a rough year, okay? The Long Run tour—forget it—it’s the stuff of legend. Each Eagle waiting for the end of a Long Beach show to kill one another—how much would you have paid for a ticket to that backstage orgy? But suffice it to say Don needed a little down time in the fall, and what better way to wind down and kick back than with some ludes, some blow, and some 15-year-old ass… wait… um…
Now it might seem like a memory best left to fade into the lore of rock, but the true artist mines his own life for morsels of truth, confronts the hideous episodes to release the beast so that he may return to his rightful place in the hellfire, and the artist can re-emerge, not vindicated, or even unburdened, but self-aware and once again relevant (assuming relevance had ever been initially achieved). It’s what the Greeks called Anagnorisis, old as Oedipus.
Oh no, Don, you didn’t! Oh yes, he did. And he brought along a friend.
BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST begins at the home of a rock star (whose name we never learn), or rather, a rock star at the end of his glory (Duritz), gazing out at the ocean from his California beach palace, smoking an unnamed substance with two girls in undies-only who could pass for thirteen. It is this opening shot, defiantly remaining on the breasts of the adolescent girls and the face of the rock star for far longer than need be, that informs us of what Henley means to do—to go straight for his own reflection with a vengeance. The sight of this, again calling into question the legality of itself, takes us out of any realm resembling mere entertainment, unless we are mental midgets who get excited over teen nudie shots. And yet, the length of the shot imposes that question on its audience. What are you? Does this do it for you? Because, the filmmaker seems to be saying, it used to do it for me, in a big way.
After the long drug-haze silence, Duritz turns to his young companions and asks the question that we know is coming, the question that inspires more fear than any other, “So, you girls wanna take a ride?” And of course, we know they will soon be hacked to death, as if Duritz is trying to make wine from their bodies in the traditional manner of grape stomping. But the real question is, what music is going to play in Duritz’s SUV on the way to the kill site? You have to hand it to Henley. I, for one, didn’t know he had this kind of head-fake in him, much less a film of this magnitude.
The Mercedes SUV roars to life, and I was all but certain I was going to hear one of two tunes, known to all, loved by some, abhorred by the rest. Option #1: Boys of Summer. Option #2: All She Wants to Do Is Dance. These two mega-hits from Henley’s wildly successful 1984 solo album that happens to have the same title as this fabulous film seem to offer equal potential for detached, cringe/chuckle-inducing bloody satire. But what does this clearly reborn auteur do? How easy would it have been to stick a flag in familiar ground, “Oh, it’s like American Psycho and Dexter, but with the Eagles, I get it!” I repeat, what does this auteur do?
Let’s start again… the Mercedes SUV roars to life and, zooming in through the windshield on Duritz’s face, the first notes of Duritz’s own(!) Long December ring out, the singer’s whining, desperate voice, the maudlin lyrics taking on an entirely new and infinitely more interesting meaning: he’s going to kill these girls, and he’s going to do it to his own song while we watch. As the hatchet falls (maybe this year will be better than the last), and purses of blood squirt on the killer’s shoulders (I can’t remember the last thing that she says), all three bodies, two dead, one alive but transformed into something inhuman (You were leaving, oh these days go by so fast), half buried in a ditch, we might ask ourselves, what is Henley up to here? I think we need to return to the Greeks for another term that has been completely integrated into our lexicon: catharsis. Finally, we are all purged of this song, once and for all. These images, and Duritz’s stony, restrained performance are a gift, and an acknowledgment that Henley and Duritz are one and the same, an eagle and a crow in name, but in truth, monsters of the sound waves, crafters of tunes far too catchy and timely to forget, and far too shallow and unimaginative to matter.
Of course Beast turns into a cat and mouse game, as it should, with a brilliantly cast Courtney Love taking the reigns as the drug addled detective in permanent hot water with the force for an array of minor and major misconducts, everything from insubordination to blowing a handcuffed suspect. As mystified media and community leaders ask Why? Why is this happening? with each new murder, Love shakes off their boundless naivete: “Why? What are you, kidding? Look around. Why wouldn’t it?” Her complete disenchantment with everything proves the inevitable foil and doppelganger to Duritz’s depersonalized killer. Henley almost seems to be suggesting that it’s not terribly important that Love catch Duritz, per se, but it would be significant if she didn’t even bother to try.
Far be it from me to speculate on Henley’s prowess as a lover, but one gets the sense that with this bold emergence as a filmmaker, Henley has slowed down enough to see a carnal world beyond his own immediate urges. He waits… waits… waits… and 87 minutes in, we finally get the payoff we’ve been wanting since the camera first falls on Duritz’s face, the credits timed perfectly to reveal the overlay, A Film by Don Henley, 87 minutes later, leaving us waiting, guessing, wondering how he’ll use it: All She Wants to Do Is Dance. And when he does, when he employs that lethal weapon, that sparse, distorted guitar lick will never lick your eardrums the same way.
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Ryan Elliot Wilson shunned the suspicious hospitality of the Midwest and the bizarre mix of Hell on Earth meets Happiest Place on Earth of Florida for the great, continually unfolding spectacle of humanity that is Los Angeles. There he found his tribe of the botched in the form of East Side poets and musicians, Hollywood agents gone mad, and socially inept high school teachers. Wilson has found this mix to be ideal for his pH. His novel SPIRAL BOUND BROTHER (Perfect Edge Books) came out in 2013. Some of his other writing can be found in the anthology, IN SEARCH OF A CITY: Los Angeles in 1000 Words, Thunderdome, Drift, and The Painted Bride Quarterly. He teaches creative writing, works in high school counseling, and lives in Los Feliz with his family. He has never appeared on a gameshow.