Tuesday, April 14, 2009
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
It may be four hours long, but the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers doc "Runnin' Down a Dream" is the best two nights of television I've spent in a long time. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this comprehensive documentary chronicles the entire life of the legendary rock star and his iconic backing band. You'll learn that before they were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, they were a country-rock band called Mudcrutch (under a slightly different lineup) whose first album tanked hardcore.
The first third of the doc is my favorite - you see the kinetic power of the young band as they go from obscurity to darlings of the British club scene to major American megastars. There is no shortage of sheer magical serendipity in the story of their formation and their initial record contract. You get the feeling that this band was literally destined to be successful.
But the power of the documentary is in its completeness. The story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has a little bit of everything - addiction, battles with the record company, creative genius, wild travel, music videos, crazed fans, infighting, reconciliation and, of course, heartbreak. But through it all shines the zen soul of Tom Petty himself, who in his reflections and interviews sounds more like a Buddhist sage than a rock star from the Deep South.
The doc runs so long because Bogdanovich is not afraid to let the music speak for itself. He includes tons of live footage, sometimes whole songs at a time, preferring to let the power of "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," "Learnin' to Fly," "Won't Back Down," and "The Waiting," (among many others) make the point for him.
I was extra thrilled by this doc because, after spending four hours absorbing the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers story, Bogdanovich chooses to close on an anecdote from Eddie Vedder about a joint show they did in Milwaukee - and I just happened to be at that show! (I feel strangely immortalized in film as a result.)
Don't let the long running time scare you away - this doc is not just for diehard fans. In many ways, it tells the story of every rock band and it gives a clear picture of the changes that took place in the music business between the late 1970s and the present day. It is as much a documentary about music history in general as it is about one specific band. (MTV Executive Bill Flanagan is interviewed in this doc and without exception, every single thing he says about the music industry and the Heartbreakers specifically is stunningly insightful.)
As a sample, check out this clip about "The Waiting:"
Seriously, watch the whole doc. And when you're done, make sure you own Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits.