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Few musical acts manage to survive relatively intact for more than a few years; longevity is not a common trait in the music industry. The business of rock and roll - and the lifestyle often attached to it - is inherently a dangerous and often transient world, and few musicians survive a rise to (and the inevitable decline from) fame unscathed. The short list of groups who have survived - and thrived - for decades include the Rolling Stones, Rush, Aerosmith, U2, and, of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Having emerged into the world of rock and roll at a most opportune moment, Tom Petty and his band have been creating influential music for over thirty years, leaving a lasting impression on both the recording industry and popular culture, especially in the United States but around the world as well.
Peter Bogdanovich, best known for his work as part of the New Hollywood generation of directors during the 1970s, most notably in his 1971 feature, The Last Picture Show, waves the light directorial hand behind Runnin' Down a Dream, the Petty rockumentary which premiered a few weeks ago at the New York Film Festival. Bogdanovich sits largely the film's periphery, allowing the archival footage, interviews, and music to tell the story. His strategy works, for the most part, though such a low-key approach results in more entertainment than true introspection.
Runnin' Down a Dream chronicles the rise of Petty and his Heartbreakers from their origins in early-1970s Gainesville, Florida. The outfit originated as the Epics and then was known as Mudcrutch before taking on their current moniker and rising to both national and international stardom. Bogdanovich had the luxury of exploiting a trove of fantastic music and footage in creating the film, though Runnin' Down a Dream, at its worst, leans towards hagiography. Petty's contributions to rock n' roll are repeated ad infinitum by the director, and Bogdanovich's fixation is further evidenced by the film's running time of over four hours. Simply put, the film drags at times. Yet watching Runnin' Down a Dream refreshes the pure volume of influential material that Petty has created throughout his career. Dozens of songs, those from the Classics era as well as the likes of "American Girl," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Falling," and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" will be remembered in the annals of rock and roll history. It's truly an awe-inspiring and perspective-shifting experience to listen to Petty's music and consider the scope of impact he and the Heartbreakers have had on the musical landscape through Bogdanovich's framing and magnification.
Petty, and for the most part his band as well, interacted at various points with the larger tapestry of important artists of the past quarter-century, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison. Petty and the Heartbreakers' contribution to rock and roll is undeniable, yet Bogdanovich fails to dig very deep into the artistic growth (or lack thereof) of the band, which creates a relatively flat portrayal.
One of the most compelling storylines of Runnin' Down a Dream is Petty's insistence that things always go his way. In 1979, MCA Records "sold" Petty and the Heartbreakers to another label, but Petty took MCA to court, eventually leading to the setting up of his own label, Backstreet. Several years later, MCA advertised Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's forthcoming album, Hard Promises, for a dollar more than was the standard price for albums at the time. Petty fought back against what he saw as price gouging at the expense of his fans, and won again. Considering Petty's outspoken nature and his rare acknowledegment of pressure from record executives, Bogdanovich could have easily titled his film I Won't Back Down without any loss of relevance. After years of fighting against the corporatization of the music industry, Petty became something of a rogue within the mainstream following the release of The Last DJ, an album which criticized the decline of both the music industry and American culture, in 2003. The record garnered little critical success, though Petty's most recent work, Highway Companion, has by and large returned him to the graces of the press and fared equally well with retailers.
Like nearly every rock and roll ensemble, Petty and his band have experienced their share of heartbreaks throughout their thirty-and-counting-year career together. Most of those incidents, including Petty's divorce, are glossed over by Bogdanovich. The most egregious omission is the demise of bassist Howie Epstein, a noted heroin addict who died of drug-related complications in 2003. When reflecting on Epstein's habit, band members (and Stevie Nicks) claim in near unanimity that they "did all they could" for Epstein. One wonders, however, how much the band's own drug use clouded their assessments of their bandmate's addiction. The only Heartbreaker to shows any real emotion over the death of Epstein is Benmont Tench, who chokes up during his recollection of the making of Echo, when it became apparent to the band that their bassist was fading away. The issue of drug use is sadly given short shrift, except for a few humorous vignettes, including Ron Blair's swallowing of an entire clump of hashish in Germany to avoid problems with customs officials.
Runnin' Down a Dream includes concert footage from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' thirtieth anniversary event in their hometown of Gainesville. The show itself is relatively unimpressive, as the toll age has taken on the band is clearly evident. Having watched the Gainesville concert before watching the documentary feature, I could only laugh at Petty's remark in Runnin' Down a Dream that Bob Dylan had inspired the band to take more risks during live performances. While the instrumentation is solid, there was little need for paramedics to be on edge during the band's Florida show, where Stevie Nicks, an "honorary Heartbreaker," appears with Petty for duets on "Insider" and "Stop Dragging My Heart Around."
Although it is by far the most thorough portrait of the band to date and in principle a long overdue project, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers deserved a more introspective portrait than Bogdanovich painted on Runnin' Down a Dream. Petty emerges as a musical genius who is always right - though we get the idea that his bandmates at times felt excluded from the world he forged for the Heartbreakers, as was evidenced during the creation of Petty's several solo records. Had he moved away from Petty's aura and approached the musician with more depth and balance, Bogdanovich would have created a more compelling film. Instead Runnin' Down a Dream is faulted by a relatively facile approach. There is no counterpoint commentary provided from critical opponents, though collaborators such as Jimmy Iovine and celebrity fans such as Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl are afforded space to chime in with praises that offer little in the way of enlightenment or insight, though it is entertaining to watch the grunge icons fawn to the point of nearly blushing. As a documentarian Bogdanovich has broken no new ground with Runnin' Down a Dream, and it offers no startling revelations about Petty either. Ultimately Bogdanovich's film is a relatively benign artist portrait bolstered by the fact that, in this arena at least, Tom Petty's legacy of great music does the talking for him. SEE ALSO: www.tompetty.com
SEE ALSO: www.sundancechannel.com/films/500254630
Eric J. Morgan
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric J. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado. He has an orange cat named Nelson and longs for the day when men and women will again dress in three-piece suits and pretty dresses to indulge in three-martini lunches and afternoon affairs.
See other articles by Eric J. Morgan.
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