Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream

Tremendous Documentary, 8 January 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

A sprawling, glorious, epic documentary of one of American Rock’s survivors and veterans which at almost four hours, is probably only about fifteen minutes too long. Commissioned by Petty, Director Bogdanovic has produced a classic in the genre. It’s success is due to Petty’s long and productive career, Petty’s wry and lucid reminiscences , access to some excellent archive footage, and shrewd editing. The running time works out at about an hour per ten years of musical career which in that context is fair enough.It is particularly strong in covering the formative years pre-Heartbreakers.

As a long standing fan from the Heartbreakers first album, it was a sweet trip down memory lane. Played out chronologically, there is abundant rehearsal, live and promotional footage from pretty much every era with thoughtful and insightful commentary from Petty and band members throughout. Yet this is a vanity project, albeit a very good one. And although as a testament to a fine career it is about “Best in Class”, inevitably there are some critical holes in it.

Their “break” in England, which launched their career is sketchily explained. The eponymous first album, launched as Punk/New Wave was about to overwhelm England, is a deeply conservative and derivative, traditional American Rock record. The only concession to the time was that no song was longer than four minutes, and four of the ten were under three. That they prospered was down to the fact that without those short songs, they would never have been played on the radio, that this was no “new band”- it was a road tested and honed unit with fine musicians, and that they had an “anchor song” in “American Girl” which is still played as the highlight of their set 34 years later.

When “You’re Gonna Get it” came out Punk/New wave ruled. Again Petty trimmed. This time six of the ten songs were under three minutes, the cover shot was a broody, moody menacing one, and single choices “You’re Gonna get it” and “I Need to Know” were consistent with the musical zeitgeist. How much of this was down to Producer Denny Cordell, how much Petty and how much unknown figures at Shelter Records was unexplained, but it worked.

The Knebworth appearance, which I saw, in 1978 is strangely missed out. It was the moment they came of age. Headliners were Genesis, they were third on the bill behind Jefferson Starship, but ahead of Devo, Brand X and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. In front of 120,000 fans they played a sharp convincing 45 minute set which demonstrated that they had the songs, and presence, to make it. How they got the gig and their recollections of it, would have been fascinating.

As a fan, I am a huge admirer of Petty’s music, but it is curious how few crossover great songs he has produced. Beyond “American Girl” you are struggling outside of the converted, and none of his albums really earns “classic” status. Is he a poor man’s Southern Springsteen? Yet his pedigree and longevity are undisputed? Howcome? This is not explored. I believe it is down to Petty’s ability to absorb and then reinvent familiar sounds. You get recognisable, clever well crafted songs, but never anything truly original. He is a synthesiser of musical styles not an originator.

To Petty’s credit, tensions within the band are laid bare. Jimmy Iovine’s scarcely disguised contempt for Stan Lynch’s drumming is starkly exposed as is bassist Howie Epsteins fatal drug addiction. The mystery of the arson attack on Petty’s home remains just that. The mutual love-in between Stevie Nicks and Petty is another delight. Her obvious infatuation with the band is lavishly covered, and the soft focus shots of her in interview suggest that Petty was at the very least flattered.

The Travelling Wilbury’s era with Jeff Lynne gives the film a lift although it is a shame that Dylan could not have been persuaded to say a few words. That notwithstanding, Dave Stewart, George Harrison, Dave Grohl and Johnny Depp ensure that Petty is never light of celebrity endorsement.

A delight, and essential viewing for fans, and an education for all music buffs interested in American Rock post 1970’s. 

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