The Petty Archives

Big Screen Embraces Hot Muse: Rock Stars
By David Carr
The New York Times - October 10, 2007

In the second half of "Runnin' Down a Dream," a documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers by the director Peter Bogdanovich, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sits in on a duet of "The Waiting." Standing before a tumultuous crowd roaring its approval, Mr. Petty turns to Mr. Vedder and suggests that he enjoy the moment. "Look at that, Eddie -- rock and roll heaven."

Moviegoers might be saying the same thing for months to come. There seems to be enough projects in theaters and in development built on the intersection between celluloid and what used to be called vinyl to fill a jukebox.

"Runnin' Down a Dream" is one of three musically themed movies scheduled for the closing weekend of the New York Film Festival, along with "The Other Side of the Mirror," a Bob Dylan documentary, and "Fados," a look at the Portuguese musical tradition.

The music of the Beatles is currently reimagined in Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe." Today "Control," a dramatic feature about the Manchester sad-core band Joy Division, will have its theatrical release, to be followed next month by Todd Haynes's "I'm Not There," featuring six performers all taking turns as avatars of Bob Dylan.

Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese, whose Rolling Stones documentary will come out next year, just signed on for a documentary about George Harrison.

And after a summer that saw musicals and biopics like "Hairspray," "El Cantante" and "La Vie en Rose," a modest movie called "Once," starring the Frames front man Glen Hansard, continues to play in theaters, powered by ardent word of mouth.

Mr. Bogdanovich, who was invited to make a film about the 30-year career of a master of the three-minute pop song and responded with a nearly four-hour documentary, said that music in general and that of Mr. Petty is often a gateway to bigger themes.

"Tom Petty is a particularly American story," he said. "And I think that pop music has always been a very good indicator of where we are in the narrative of contemporary history."

The Petty documentary will probably not have a big theatrical run -- Best Buy will sell the DVD exclusively -- but the film's backer, Warner Brothers Records, hopes that all sorts of Petty fans will snap up a documentary about a man with 50 million in all-time sales. (It's also releasing a concert DVD of a 30th-anniversary show in Gainesville, Fla., Mr. Petty's hometown.)

The movie looks back in cultural history to a time before "rock stars were invented on game shows," as Mr. Petty wryly observes. It also serves as a vivid reminder that Mr. Petty remains one of the coolest guys out of the South since William Faulkner, a straight-ahead rocker who got the likes of Mr. Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Mr. Harrison to play with him.

In the midst of movie clutter, familiar musical figures offer one way to catch audience attention. The music biopic stretches back decades to movies like "Night and Day" (about Cole Porter) and "The Gene Krupa Story," and the link between musical and visual forms was cemented by MTV back when the network actually used to show music videos. Following a path taken by singers like Frank Sinatra, there is a host of musical stars today who have found traction as film actors, including Jennifer Hudson, Ice-T, Ludacris and Queen Latifah.

The music and film industries might be forming a more steadfast alliance partly to ward off disruptive technologies that allow people to partake without paying, but those same technologies are part of what makes music-oriented projects more likely to be undertaken and potentially more lucrative. Even beyond taking advantage of vastly improved theatrical sound systems, both in theaters and in the home, such films have become a rich source of DVDs, downloads and accompanying compilation and inspired-by albums, like Jay-Z's take on Ridley Scott's forthcoming "American Gangster." (Sometimes a musical companion can outlive and surpass the film itself, as arguably happened with "Garden State," a record that is still passed around as mood music for an alternative universe.)

"In a digital age, there is a crossover in delivery systems -- iTunes and the Web, DVDs -- that allows for both musical and film experience," said Richard Peña, program director of the New York Film Festival.

"The technological changes have had an effect on the films themselves as well. You have more and more complex soundtracks, to the point where soundtracks become almost as important as the image tracks from the filmmakers. In the truest sense, you get a kind of audio-visual spectacle."

Beyond providing narrative assists and serving as a platform for huge crowd-pleasers like "Dreamgirls," pop music is built on a vast series of rabid, self-defined tribes, who will scoop up any and all products about a given artist or group. That may explain why Joy Division, a group that put out just two records and was never a huge arena band, merits not just a feature, but also a documentary, simply called "Joy Division."

Demographics may also be playing a role. Many baby boomers whose seminal experiences were accompanied by a certain band or song are now in their prime moviemaking years. But hybrid celebrity culture is in there as well.

"The actors today are absolutely musically obsessed," said the director James Toback, who is currently in the studio with RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, laying down tracks for his coming documentary on Mike Tyson. "When pop culture became the culture, stars of the two forms interacted and blended, inspiring desire for all sorts of crossover projects."

Of course music won't redeem every project. "Ray" and "Walk the Line" notwithstanding, bald attempts to capitalize on embedded awareness can head into the tank faster than you can say "From Justin to Kelly."

And then there's "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," the faux biopic starring John C. Reilly, coming in December from the comedy workshop of Judd Apatow. One of the surest signs that a trend is under way is that it has become worthy of parody, and "Walk Hard" riffs through many of the genre's tendencies. After playing a few songs from the movie and showing a clip from the film last week in Los Angeles, Mr. Apatow said later by phone that he and Jake Kasdan, the film's director, watched many of the classics and decided that the stories were all pretty much the same.

"A small-town person grows up amidst a tragedy in his family, becomes a star, cheats on his first wife, goes into rehab, falls in love, cheats on his second wife, then sobers up again, experiences a final triumph and passes away peacefully or dies horribly," he said.

"We all know these stories from VH1's 'Behind the Music,' and even though we know what to expect, we still love watching them."