TV FEATURE: A documentary destined to be a classic
By Dave Walker
Houston Chronicle - Saturday, October 27, 2007
Something for all in epic look at Petty and Heartbreakers
Peter Bogdanovich would seem to be a weird choice to direct a retrospective documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Weird, in that Bogdanovich is best known as a feature-film director (The Last Picture Show), film historian (his documentary Directed by John Ford and his book This Is Orson Wells are considered classics of their genres) and, lately, actor (he played Dr. Elliot Kupferberg in The Sopranos).
According to an interview with Petty at tompetty.com, Bogdanovich didn't know that much about the band before starting the project.
Even so, Petty's camp chose Bogdanovich to do the film. The result, Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (6 p.m. Monday, Sundance) is four hours of bliss for the Petty hard-core, and a fascinating tale for the casual majority of potential viewers.
It helped that Bogdanovich had great material beyond the music itself.
For starters, there's the three-decade, made-in-America arc of the band's story, which will seem familiar to anyone who loves the VH1 Behind the Music template. The band has humble origins in Gainesville, Fla., and it rose to European success before breaking big in the United States. Petty battled with his record company while rising to artistic triumph with his 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes, still a classic-rock radio staple. There were prototypical struggles with substance abuse and creative differences but a soul-survivor's will that has kept the primary components of the band a creative and commercial force.
Then there are the home movies, apparently shot by early insiders Jim Lenehan and Ron Blair, which offer a charming glimpse at what life might've been like for the band during its swampy, scuffling days. Finally, there's Petty himself, an expert teller of droll tales, as anyone who has heard his most recent (super) solo album, Highway Companion, would attest.
"I must have been 10 or 11 years old," says Petty early in the film. "My aunt came over and said, `Elvis Presley is making a movie and your uncle's working on the picture, and I thought maybe you'd like to go down one day and watch the filming and see Elvis.' The streets were just packed with hundreds of people. Elvis appeared, like a vision. He didn't look like anything I'd ever seen. And I'm just dumbstruck.
"I went home a changed man."
Seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show changed Petty further.
"I was 13," he says. "In those few minutes ... it all became clear. This is what I'm going to do. This is how you do it. Within 24 hours everything changed."
Bogdanovich brings in a chorus of collaborators and famous fans to testify, too. Stevie Nicks talks about how she would've ditched Fleetwood Mac to become a Heartbreaker if only girls were allowed. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam can barely contain their awe. In an interview recorded shortly before his death, George Harrison, a seminal influence on Petty and later a Traveling Wilburys bandmate, is equally praising in his own way.
"For me, he's just one of the nicest people because he's not full of (expletive), as they say," Harrison says.
Bogdanovich expertly stitches all of it together into a film that feels about half as long as its epic run-time. Like his work in other realms, it's destined to be a classic of the genre.
"I feel very blessed," says Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell near the film's conclusion. "I'm a kid who saw the Beatles and had a fantasy dream (of) God, wouldn't it be great to do something like that? And then I had my dream come true, to the point where I met some of the Beatles and worked with them and had them tell me they liked the way I play. It's almost unreal, I've been so lucky."
Thanks to the weird choice of director, mated with all that cool source material, not to mention all that music, viewers will feel the same about Runnin' Down a Dream. I never owned a single Petty record until Companion, and I do.