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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Running Time: 3 hrs 58 mins
Last October, when Tom Petty’s pending death was all over the news, I found myself suddenly regretful I’d not followed his career closer. It wasn’t until much later (and especially during this viewing) that I realized that I’d simply never considered the presence of his music anything separate from living life. The sound of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had always just been a constant.
So by the day after Tom’s death, I swore I was going to watch this film in its entirety. I had been aware of it and it’s very girthy running time. As a matter of fact, even after that point, I kept putting it off in order to give it the time I thought it deserved. Only recently did I resolve to break up the viewing into “as much as I can when I can” in order for that dedication to honor him to not go stale.
Now I wish I hadn’t waited. Like so many other documentaries I’ve seen lately, I learned quite a bit I didn’t know about Tom and the band’s early years. For instance, I had no idea Tom was from Gainesville, Florida. Being from a few miles south of there (ok, Brandon by way of Orlando) myself, a new connection has formed. This guy is basically from my birthplace (roughly). How cool is that?
There is something about the proximity of his history in Time and Space that raises my awareness of him now. Maybe because by the time his first band Mudcrunch breaks up and the Heartbreakers are formed, I’m having my first Air Guitar Foreigner concert (about age 4) just a few miles south of Ocala, in a town called Leesburg. Tom had once visited the set of an Elvis movie set in Ocala many years earlier. To me that feels SUPER close, even though by age difference Tom is about the same age as my oldest Brother.
The documentary itself is generous with the details. I think that the decision to be so comprehensive was mostly the decision of the Producers and Director, naturally. But the way I see it you can get the entire life and career of any Rock Star in under 90 minutes. The decision to include full performance footage of many media appearances, like on ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ in promotion of the first Heartbreakers album are a surprising treat. This, of course, contributes to the overall running time.
There are many points throughout the documentary were I got rather emotional. I think mostly it was the momentary realization that there will be no more new music by this great artist. But also I was remembering just how much his music has played in the background of my life. Each time those old hits came up; ‘Refugee’, ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, ‘The Waiting’, ‘You Got Lucky’,it was like a nostalgic gut punch.
There are two parts to the film and the first part ends just after the ‘Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)’ album, which in overall music history is where the Adult Contemporary Radio format has now been around for a number of years. It’s hard to remember that before the 80’s ‘Classic Rock’ mostly lived on tape or vinyl and got its replay from the listener’s own hand. AC Rock Stations changed that by having artists like Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and The Eagles on rotation 24/7 and that contributes to this feeling I have of this music being “Always On”.
So when Part Two starts, my nostalgia kicks into overdrive because now we hit the years of my late adolescence and early adulthood, read: Moody. It starts with Tom Petty on a two year concert bender with Bob Dylan and moves right into the formation of The Traveling Wilburys and shortly thereafter the release of his first solo album ‘Full Moon Fever’. Tom was professionally already established, but this period is what I know him best for. I’m pretty sure I played ‘Full Moon Fever’ the entire summer that it was out.
One of the reasons this album got so much play was it was a new sound for Petty. I wouldn’t know it then, but his collaborative work with Jeff Lynne (of ELO) in the Wilburys project would take Tom into a new way of recording his music. Using Production methods instead of repetitive rehearsed Performance takes was not a favorite method of recording for the other members of the Heartbreakers, but the results produced a multi-platinum album for him.
I have to be honest, everything after this point just becomes an embarrassment of amazement for me. I just had this sense that I’d been there for every bit of coverage that follows that moment, maybe because I had always just had my ear piqued to hear new Tom Petty whenever it came out without ever thinking of it.
By the time the Documentary ends, we are in and around 2007 and the 30th Anniversary of The Heartbreakers. And that becomes a sadness, because we know the band actually had a 40th Anniversary tour which ended with the Finale at The Hollywood Bowl Late September 2017, the show which would be Tom’s final public performance. So there is a whole other 10 years of history not covered. Fortunately, we kind of know how things wound up. Because in that time Tom had his own Radio Channel launch on SiriusXM with a show called Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure, which he hosted. The channel is still in active programming and you can hear replays of those episodes.
As I wrap up I feel I should add that there is a ton of band history and similar beats to other music documentaries. The comings and goings of key band members over time. But very little actual Drama is highlighted and I think that may have been an askance of Tom himself. There are certain happenings that could have been played up, but the coverage flows much like Tom’s mellow demeanor. There are moments of bad news and tragedy, but the music never really stops.
If it is not clear by now, I am enamoured with this documentary and the artist it represents. I haven’t had a music film affect me this deeply and I’m rather surprised by it. And yet, while I am sad at Tom’s passing, I don’t fully mourn him. I can still hear his music every night at work and there is a comfort that his sound is still the same constant companion that he has always been. If you have ever rocked out on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers I hope you take some time to enjoy some parts of this film. It’s just a really good time and at least for me is very evocative of some of the best years in Rock History.