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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Running Down a Dream
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by Lybarger

"Welcome back, Mr. Bogdanovich."
4 stars

When producer David O. Selznick and studio boss Louis B. Mayer were arguing over the length of the three to four-hour ‘Gone with the Wind,’ they asked Samuel Goldwyn how long a good movie should be. His bluntly accurate answer was ‘As long as it’s good.’ Peter Bogdanovich’s new documentary about the life and career of Florida-born rocker Tom Petty runs nearly four hours and never fails to engage or entertain.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his subject can still crank out great tunes after 30 years and has a refreshingly honest perspective on himself and his music.

Whereas the great bluesman Robert Johnson was only photographed twice, Petty and his ace accompanists the Heartbreakers have been constantly in the spotlight, even before music fans outside of Gainesville, Fla. discovered them. Bogdanovich assembles “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream” from:
*home movies of Petty as a toddler
*sound clips of Petty’s early band Mudcrunch
*rare European television performances
*behind-the-scenes footage that has to be seen to be believed
*testimonials from Petty collaborators, some of whom are no longer with us

Even the most rabid Petty admirers haven’t seen some of the footage presented here. There’s a jaw-dropping sequence where he chews out some record company drones who are trying to make former Byrds frontman Roger McGuin record a shallow pop song that’s beneath the veteran rockers’ dignity. It’s treat to watch the justifiably angry Petty educate them.

Because of the wealth of footage, Bogdanovich is able to illustrate what Petty and the Heartbreakers describe during the interview segments. When Petty and an early version of the band headed to Los Angeles to attempt to make their fortunes, Bogdanovich is able to show clips from the journey being described, making it more than a hackneyed tall tale.

He and the Heartbreakers describe almost getting arrested for drugs in Europe, and a clip from German television shows glassy-eyed bass player Ron Blair somehow pulling through a song despite swallowing a stash of hashish.

As the documentary reveals, Petty’s rebelliousness is simply a state of being, not a pose. Petty and his younger brother candidly describe his difficult relationship with their father and how much of it shows up in his later tunes.

His attitude toward authority extended to his relationship with his record companies. At a time when he could ill-afford it (he went bankrupt), Petty stood up to MCA records and demanded a better deal.

He discovered that his previous label had sold their contract without his permission and denied him and the band their share of the earnings. Petty was so determined to control his career and to prevent a disadvantageous release of his music that he ordered his associates to hide the tapes of “Damn the Torpedoes!” so that he could honestly tell attorneys he had no idea where they were.

Even after MCA eventually caved, he got into another row with them when they decided to charge an extra dollar for his “Hard Promises” album. The now rich Petty saw no reason to gouge fans for more cash and bullied the label into submission, forcing them to drop list price.

Bogdanovich clearly admires Petty. But Petty and the band bluntly assess their opinions of their recordings. They all feel the title “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” reflected their feelings as they recorded it. And when Petty recalls how drugs led him to almost end his career by punching a wall, he says the incident sobered him up, but jokingly asks if the interviewer has any drugs.

The film is marred somewhat by an opening where various talking heads describe Petty as a major talent. Petty’s fans don’t need to be reminded. It leads viewers to think that what follows will lead to long, tedious lionization of the singer. Fortunately, Bogdanovich gets on track (and never falls off again) by including a rousing performance of “You Wreck Me,” demonstrating the praise isn’t idle.

The DVD edition doesn’t include conventional featurettes or commentaries, but includes a tight, energetic 2006 concert that was filmed by director Joe Thomas in Gainesville. It also comes with a CD of previously unreleased tracks. The offerings are solid performances of tunes Petty has recorded elsewhere, but they lack cohesive structure of an album.

It’s been a long time since Bogdanovich has made films as powerful and gripping as “The Last Picture Show,” so it’s great that Petty’s relevance and longevity has apparently rubbed off on him. Here’s hoping the filmmaker can discover other veteran rockers to film.

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originally posted: 11/07/07 01:07:34
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User Comments

11/23/16 Cindy Trahan Amazing, awesome! Who knew all this? You'll watch it over and over again. 5 stars
2/10/10 thevoid99 Well-Structured & Certainly Fascinating from Start to Finish. 5 stars
12/09/07 AJ Muller If you're a Petty fan this is the Holy Grail. If you don't know, here's the place to start. 5 stars
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