Friday, December 26, 2008

Weighing In: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream

"You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down." -- Tom Petty

There is a fundamental difference between the "concert" documentary and the "artist" documentary. The "concert" documentary primarily focuses on a band or artist's performance; narrative and behind-the-scenes material are by-products. Scorsese's The Last Waltz, Bob Smeaton's Festival Express and Jonathan Demme's Heart of Gold all fall into this category. Not surprisingly, the "artist" documentary primarily focuses on the artist or band itself; performance is the by-product. The Beatles Anthology and Scorsese's No Direction Home are two fine examples in this group. Peter Bogdanovich's Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream (2007) is a near-perfect take on the latter.

Director/critic/John Ford enthusiast Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon), masterfully interweaves archival footage, interviews, rare outtakes and a smattering of live performance to produce one of the best artist documentaries I've seen in years. The film begins fittingly with footage from the band's 30th anniversary concert in Gainsville, Florida -- the same town where a younger, free-spirited rebel named Tom Petty egged some local buddies to forgo college (and in one case, the military) in hopes of acheiving rock 'n' roll stardom. What foresight. Despite its 3+ hour running time, Bogdanovich does an impeccable job taking us through virtually every aspect of Petty's storied life: an abusive father, a mother's untimely death, the Mudcrutch period, the band's odyssey to L.A., record deals, bankruptcies, the rise to stardom, the tragic loss of a bandmate, and of course, becoming one of the biggest names in rock history. There is never a dull moment.

Admittedly, much of this I was unaware of beforehand. Take for example Petty's vigilante heroism against the predatory record companies during the 1970's and 1980's or the band's immense popularity overseas before becoming a household name in the States. But what I found most astonishing was the sheer number of hits penned by Petty -- each one more recognizable than the last. This is certainly a near-impossible feat given today's standards. If there was a ever a Picasso of rock 'n' roll, it would be Petty.

Also included is great interview footage from a list of admirers ranging from: Eddie Vedder, Jeff Lynne, Stevie Nicks, Dave Grohl, Johnny Depp, George Harrison...George Harrison -- a FUCKING BEATLE! Who can boast about that these days? Fall Out Boy? The Jonas Brothers? The Black Eyed Peas? Laughable. Another high point recounts Petty's stint with the exceedingly underrated Traveling Wilburys. The Wilburys, whose members included, Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne, was hands down, the GREATEST rock "supergroup" of all-time. And for those who disagree, let me repeat the names a second time: Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne. Just watching the group jam and mess around is staggering. There is a great scene where Petty assists Orbison in writing Orbison's mega hit "You Got It." I had no idea of Petty's collaboration. The only real disappointment was that Bogdanovich couldn't land an interview with Dylan, although I suspect this had more to do with Dylan's elusiveness than any oversight on Bogdanovich's part.

There is a great quote by Petty where he observes that today, rock stars are "being invented on game shows." There is a sadness in his eyes; a sort of reluctant acceptance that the industry has let us all down. I think he knows the gig is up. Unlike the cookie-cutter, money-making machines of the music biz today, Petty earned his stripes the hard way. He trekked over 2000 miles to California in a broken down van, armed only with a pocketful of songs and a will to be heard. There was no reality t.v., no MySpace, no YouTube, no Sirius; just one man and his guitar. The future was wide open...

--D.S., Weightstaff


Barbara(aka Layla) said...

Your review makes me want to see this! I would not have given it a second thought but you've intrigued me. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great Post D.S.

It is strange that the dylan material is not there. While dylan was looking for a pick-up band in the 80's he called on the Heartbreakers to back him up on a tour or two, pre-wilburys. so there was at least some respect and interest.

keep up the good work.