By James Calemine
Born in Gainesville, Florida, Tom Petty became one of America’s most well-known songwriters in the last 30 years. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers represent one of America’s finest bands, and Runnin Down A Dream provides a very strong argument for such a statement.
Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ranks as one of the best documentaries on a rock and roll band in a long time. The film chronicles Petty’s early days in Gainesville…his band Mudcrutch…assembling the Heartbreakers…the first long drive to Los Angeles…early deals…meeting Denny Cordell, and eventually Tom scoring a contract.
Runnin’ Down A Dream documents the historic progression of Petty’s career as well as his bandmates Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Stan Lynch, Ron Blair, Howie Epstein and the various characters that floated around the Heartbreakers’ orbit. The film includes conversations with George Harrison, Rick Rubin, Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Jeff Lynne, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks and others. What’s always been great about the Heartbreakers they don’t remind everyone they’re from the south—or pigeonhole themselves–but ultimately they can’t shake their southern influences no matter how far away they are from the southern states when they write or play music.
No one era of Petty’s career is more interesting than any other. Bogdanovich does the film justice by allowing the gravity of each era in the band to carry the same weight. From the seeds of the early Heartbreaker gigs to their ascent in the music business, and even dark days of major success.
Bits of humor permeate the film—it’s not just this serious overview of a rock and roll band against the backdrop of world peace at hand…it’s really about the musicians playing their instruments and people enjoying the music…how the songs translated to the masses. The film even captures the Heartbreakers’ slash and burn music motto: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus…”
The film profiles Petty’s struggles with MCA Records while he began compiling hit after hit. Runnin’ Down A Dream touches on Petty’s relatives, the death of his mother and how his family situation influenced his music. Petty’s great record Hard Promises found Petty—once again—face to face with record business executives over album prices. Soon original bassist Ron Blair leaves the band and the music business, and we see Howie Epstein join the Heartbreakers. The film investigates Petty’s exposure on something new called MTV. Throughout the film, Petty’s storytelling accentuates the facts–especially in the film when Petty discusses bad habits, shattering his hand and recording his 1985 Southern Accents album.
In the second part of the documentary Petty tours and collaborates with Bob Dylan (Dylan’s cinematographer son Jesse contributed to footage in the documentary). During this time, Petty’s house was burned down by an arsonist, and he begins to widen his circle of friends by joining the Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne. The film highlights the Full Moon Fever era of Petty’s career when Heartbreakers became torn and frayed over Petty’s music and outside musical alliances.
Years later, Petty cut down his 18-minute “Into The Great Wide open” video to 7-minutes—still too long to fit MTV format—and without revealing its length–Petty sent the video to MTV and they played it anyway, regardless of the extended time limit, in heavy rotation. The film elaborates on drummer Stan Lynch leaving the Heartbreakers after 20 years, and how the band began to morph.
Runnin’ Down A Dream documents Petty’s critical studio albums Wildflowers, Echo, The Last DJ and his 2006 release Highway Companion. The film also highlights Petty & The Heartbreakers recording with Johnny Cash as well as the sad death of bassist/singer/producer Howie Epstein.
This package also contains a DVD of the historic 2006–30th Anniversary–concert in Gainesville, Florida, as well as one CD featuring rare and unreleased tracks such as Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”. Petty and The Heartbreakers emerge as the heroes they really are by the end of Runnin’ Down A Dream. Do yourself a favor, and add this one to the collection…