In this environment of quick clips on YouTube and automated playlists on the radio (both free and satellite) Tom Petty is more than just a champion for the last DJ, he is truly one of the last rock stars. A man who still puts a hundred percent into making the Long Play certainly deserves a documentary much more exhaustive and satisfying than the tabloid-faire of VH1's Behind the Music . Director Peter Bogdanovich may not exactly be the poor man's Scorsese to Petty's poor man's Dylan, but the other legendary director's masterpiece (No Direction Home: ) must have had an immediate impact on this four-hour chronicle. Telling the story of a rock and roll refugee and his band of Heartbreakers, some may think that it's two-and-a-half hours too much on the scruffy, Mary Jane puffing troubadour, and maybe that would be true if you didn't account for the fact that he's had both success and something to say in each of the last four decades; and Bogdanovich seems bent on using every hour to remind you of how overlooked the humble Petty is (even if the subject commissioned this saga himself).
Now out on DVD, the doc is also playing on the Sundance Channel, and aside from closing out the New York Film Festival it showed for one night only in selected theatres across the country (my screening was at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood). The film opens up as the band (no, not The Band) hit the stage for a homecoming show in Gainesville, Florida, but while the story doesn't start from the "beginning," it's only moments that we learn about Petty's early influences; typical, yet essential (The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, anyone?). It's clear that a childhood meeting with the King, Elvis Presley (he was shooting a movie around town), had an enormous effect, as in one of the many interviews the director weaves in and out of the film, Petty admits to going home a changed man. His rock gods seemed to shape the young boy more than his old man, who he recalls as being abusive and mean (probably the source of his "edge"), although that $35 guitar he gave his son did come in handy. Peter Bogdanovich gives us childhood photos and old footage of his family, as Petty narrates the tale.
As other wanna-be rocks stars do, Tom Petty joined a high-school rock and roll band, The Epics, which eventually lead to Mudcrutch -who cares about the name for now, right? What's important is that they packed up the van and headed out west, but the record people only want Petty, his simple yet inventive guitarist, Mike Campbell, and the solid Benmont Tench on keys. Bogdanovich dubs this chapter, "What's In a Name," and its accompanied by 8mm footage of their road trip and an early music video. Petty's distinctive look was naturally there; the thin-lips, thin bones, and even longer hair.
It wasn't long after making it to L.A. that Tom Petty was told they were mostly interested in him, and Tom Petty recalls the decision to cut the boys loose. Although he's not explicit about it, we can feel the hungry artist in him; the one who was compelled to make it happen, even if it meant losing a few friends along the way. It seems to go against the hippie nature, maybe, but the creative angst in him wouldn't be denied. A couple of years later Petty reconnected with Campbell and Tench, who had already started another band with bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch -- and they were calling themselves the Heartbreakers. Petty had a deal on the table with Denny Cordell (who perspective is included) of Shelter records, who agreed to the-Heartbreakers-as-the-backing-band pitch, and before you know it they're in the studio and out on the road.
This is no camera shy band we're dealing with here, no. In fact, it's almost uncanny how much film/tape was rolled on their behalf (which they eventually paid for in one way or another), and fans will ravage the footage of their first European tour. They were a smash in England, who associated the Heartbreakers with their own emerging pub/punk rock scene (the Eurythmics,' Dave Stewart explains as only an Englishman can), but it took a little time for them to be accepted at home where disco, arena rock, MOR ruled the land. Luckily the tide was turning in the States as punk and the new wave were becoming mainstream. The only old-school rockers that could survive the cut were the ones that were stripped-down or vintage sounding yet forward thinking; and the perception now was that Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers had the perfect blend of roots-rock, punk-rock, and pop. The inclusion of "American Girl" in the decade's pop-culture classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (where is music is along side the likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Joe Walsh) would cement this position. As odd as it sounds, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vetter confesses that he used to woo chicks after school to the grooves of his Petty records. Bogdanovich inevitably cuts to the stage where Vetter guests on "The Waiting."
The artist may be skin and bones, his image a non-image, but Petty entered the MTV era like a champ, and the documentary meticulously takes you through a time when the band broke new ground on a brand new platform, and a time when Petty was making inroads with some of his heroes. Tom Petty was simultaneously becoming the hot new sound and classic rock, and his demand from and friendship with some of the industry's most established stars was rapidly growing. There was Stevie Nicks, who actually wanted to quit Fleetwood Mac to join the Heartbreakers (ol' Tommy put his foot down, decreeing, "There aren't any girls in the Heartbreakers."), and eventually he'd get the call-up from Bob Dylan himself when the Heartbreakers got to pretend they were The Band out on the road as Mr. Tambourine Man's backing band. Again, the footage is incredible, with a little bit of the video for "Insider," (a duet penned for Nicks' solo album, that ended up on Hard Promises because he'd grown too attached), some in-studio video where Stevie and Tom are working out, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," and then we get front and center for the Bob Dylan & The Heartbreakers set.
It wasn't all easy street for Tom Petty, however. First fighting for his publishing rights when his label, ABC, was acquired by MCA (in an innovative tactic, he filed for bankruptcy as a way to force the label to renegotiate his deal), then fighting over consumer rights when a price hike would apply to his new album, effectively making him look like the bad guy. And when Petty isn't fighting the Man for you or for himself, he's fighting the Man for the artists he reveres. Take the case of former Byrds icon, Roger McGuinn: Petty gives his A&R guy and producer a reaming after listening to the hokey material they had in mind for his hero's comeback album. When they suggest that he just re-write the lyrics, Petty accuses them of having unscrupulous intentions for pushing such crap. It's so personal you almost blush, but the taped incident reveals a vulnerable yet thankful McGuinn. The "Last DJ" himself, KLOS-FM's Jim Ladd appears on screen to give more testimonials of Petty's authenticity and values.
What would Tom Petty the teenager say if you told him that one day he'd be in a band with some of his biggest influences? That's exactly what happened when a series of "Coincidences" begat the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. The latter became a producer/artist whom Petty would invite to produce his first solo album without the Heartbreakers, Full Moon Fever. The director incorporates an interview with the late, George Harrison, as well as the rest of the Wilburys. Peter Bogdanovich builds up the group's slow rise to the top, and he does an excellent job ushering us into more troubled and uncertain times for the band as well. With Petty as a solo act, some Heartbreakers were unsure of their future job status, others were getting too comfortable to care, and another (Howie Epstein) was slowly but surely losing his battle with addiction. Tom Petty deals with the sensitive subject with regret, but no guilt. Rick Rubin (producer of Echo, also weighs in on these tough but nevertheless rewarding times, especially when you got Johnny Cash doing a cover version of "I Won't Back Down."
Runnin' Down A Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers deals with the highs and lows of a long career in a business used to spitting people right out. The induction into the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows them getting credit for their hard work, but it's the 30th Anniversary Show that really celebrates the band's triumph. Selections are included throughout, but the DVD release will include the performance in its entirety. As far as the more personal aspects of Petty's life, Bogdanovich deals with tragedies well (the death of Epstein, the burning of Petty's home), but it handles his love life with kid-gloves; not that we need to get too pushy about it, but a little more on the breakdown of his marriage would have made it seem less controlled and glossed-over.
As a filmmaker, Peter Bogdanovich brings his own sense of place and rhythm to the Picture. He's got experience shooting quiet small towns, so when he goes back to Petty's childhood neighborhood, it looks more like something out of The Last Picture Show than The Last Waltz. The director also takes his time with just about every music clip and interview, not rushing for sound bytes he's letting real moments play out; instances that will make you feel like a fly-on-the-wall, forgetting that you're eavesdropping on a conversation that happened years ago. Tom Petty may not be the institution that Bob Dylan is, so maybe a documentary covering only up to the "You're Jammin' Me" days would be a little excessive, but Bogdanovich seeks to tell the complete arc of the band, giving you, perhaps, a more cohesive and fulfilling picture of an artist. Runnin' Down A Dream is a trip with one of American music's most durable personalities; it's an adventure that many of us feel connected to because Tom Petty's songs have been such good companions for our own travels down life's highways.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?