What a treat this movie is.
Does four hours seem too long for a documentary on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? It isn’t. It could have been even longer and I would not have complained.
Peter Bogdanovich tells the story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from the beginning, with Tom a child in Gainesville, Florida (and meeting Elvis), through his early band Mudcrutch, which contained the seeds of the Heartbreakers, and onward through the long career of that legendary rock and roll institution, ending with the Highway Companion album and the thirtieth anniversary concert. And it’s never boring. Spending four hours with Tom and the boys drives home just how much great music they have made together these thirty-plus years.
Very little is revealed about anyone’s life unless the events related to the music. Petty’s relationship with his parents is covered only briefly. Later in the film, when his two daughters are mentioned, it comes as a surprise because we have never been informed that they were born in the first place. Whether this was done to protect the privacy of the Petty family or to keep the film’s focus firmly on the music and the musicians who made it, on the whole it is a good decision. There’s plenty of drama without dragging the rest of the Pettys into it (or the Tenches or the Campbells, for that matter).
Tom told us all on Full Moon Fever that he won’t back down. He meant it, as his multiple squabbles with record labels attest, including fighting to keep his albums reasonably priced for his fans when MCA wanted to squeeze a few more bucks out of us, something to warm the cockles of a music lover’s heart. It isn’t always a flattering picture that emerges, though–canning bassist Ron Blair for Howie Epstein (stealing Epstein from another band) looks like a cold and calculated move. (Blair was rehired twenty years later, after Howie Epstein was fired.)
But the music is why you’ll buy or rent this movie, and the music is nearly always front and center. Many times, documentaries on musical acts can be a bit frustrating–a snoopet of a classic song plays, and you want to hear the whole thing, but they’ve moved on. While there are few complete performances here, we do get longer excerpts than I’m used to. Disc one ends with a moving performance of the too-little-known “Southern Accents” from their thirtieth anniversary concert, which works beautifully. I still wanted more–the footage of Petty and the Heartbreakers touring as Bob Dylan’s road band is great, and I could have easily watched an hour or two of just that.
Amazingly, there are some things that aren’t covered in the lengthy running time. The second Traveling Wilburys record isn’t mentioned, nor are Tom Petty and Mike Campbell’s producing gigs for Del Shannon, who was rumored as a replacement for Roy Orbison in the Wilburys. But it’s hard to complain about a couple of omissions in a film this long and this good–although I will gripe that no reference is made to the underappreciated soundtrack to the 1996 movie She’s the One, which contains one of my favorite Petty songs, “Walls (Circus).”
Runnin’ Down a Dream was obviously created to make the case for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as an important rock and roll band who can stand proudly with the best of all time, and at that, it succeeds brilliantly. It’s an absolute delight.
But wait–there’s more!
The box set (which is sold exclusively at Best Buy) contains two more discs.
The first is a DVD of their thirtieth anniversary concert in hometown Gainesville, where they perform hits from the previous three decades and some covers of their influences. Honorary Heartbreaker Stevie Nicks joins the festivities for several songs (How about recording with her again, Tom? You’re great together). It’s tremendous fun, spirited and joyful, and the band’s connection with its fans is palpable.
The fourth disc is a CD of rare performances featured in the movie, such as “Honey Bee” from Saturday Night Live with Dave Grohl on drums. It’s probably largely of interest to the hardcore fan, but the casual fan will find some things to enjoy.
Runnin’ Down a Dream is an embarrassment of riches celebrating a great American band and rock and roll itself, all for about thirty bucks. You need this.
Here’s the performance of “Southern Accents” referenced above. Unfortunately, this YouTuber cut out Tom introducing the song and the long applause at the end, robbing it of some context. No matter–the song can stand alone.