Reviews

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream

Initially available only as an exclusive Best Buy box set, Peter Bogdanovich's four-hour documentary on the making of an American rock 'n' roll institution is re-released in a two-disc edition, available anywhere.


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Runnin' Down a Dream

Length: 240
MPAA rating: N/A
Contributors: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Peter Bogdanovich, The Heartbreakers
Label: Warner Bros
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2008-10-28
Trailer
Amazon
iTunes

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are back-pocket stuff. They're always there, always on the radio, always playing that song you've heard a thousand times before even if you could never pinpoint the exact moment you first heard it, always plying their trade in a world of prettied-up pose. Indeed, there's a workmanlike quality to a Tom Petty song -- it's as if a job is being done, or a void is being filled, and it's easy to imagine that the Earth would fold in on itself should that Tom Petty song be removed from its current holding pattern. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it would seem, are essential to our survival.

It's easy to take Petty for granted; he is, after all, always there and always on, constantly providing this subconscious paradigm of craft, restraint, and endurance. This is the sort of idea that Peter Bogdanovich's epic documentary, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream (originally released as a four-disc Best Buy exclusive, and now available in a two-disc edition), aims to challenge: within the span of four hours, Bogdanovich remakes the ordinary as the extraordinary. Or: Bogdanovich's film serves as a reminder that Petty and his crack band (keyboardist Benmont Tench, in particular, has become an archetype for the late-20th century supporting player) originated not from the ether of the radio waves but from a place on the map (Gainesville, Florida), and that their rise to the regularly accessed spaces in our minds was truly a rags-to-riches story chock full of 1) naïve exploits (hello, driving out to California and knocking on the doors of record labels!), 2) more naïve exploits (hello, chewing on and subsequently swallowing a wad of hash in order to get past airport security!), and 3) the ways in which those naïve exploits were exploited by others (the drama surrounding Petty's record and publishing contracts in the late '70s result in his filing for bankruptcy, and, in a bit of sweet revenge, the release of Damn the Torpedoes, a major commercial and critical success).

Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) scores with great pacing and footage during the film's first two hours, which cover the compelling story of Petty's formative years, his first major band (Mudcrutch, a band name so awful it should always be followed by an asterisk and footnoted apology), and his initial success with the Heartbreakers. (Bogdanovich often includes full live performances instead of brief excerpts, which partially contribute to the film's long runtime.) It may seem odd to us now, but in the late '70s, Petty & the Heartbreakers were lumped in with the new wave "alternative": they offered concise, song-focused relief to the noodling prog-addled trends of the decade. "We have a slogan," guitarist Mike Campbell jokes at one point, "'Don't bore us, get to the chorus.'" Each small step of the band's rise gets adequate examination during the film's first half, including an excellent section on the making of Damn the Torpedoes with producer Jimmy Iovine.

The final two hours aren't as smooth, narrative-wise -- too much ground is covered, too many albums and side projects (e.g. the Traveling Wilburys) vie for a piece of the narrative's time. If the first half of the film is a nuanced journey from square one to the big time, then the rest of the movie is a simple manifestation of how the big time is messy and unfocused. Slightly more troubling is how Bogdanovich glazes over Petty's apathetic dismissal of his band's members, from losing Mudcrutch personnel in his initial record deal to the departure of original Heartbreakers Stan Lynch and Ron Blair (who later rejoined the band after a two-decade hiatus). Even the drug addiction and sudden death of bassist Howie Epstein, who replaced Blair in the '80s, is kept at a businesslike distance -- Epstein's passing is barely mentioned before the film moves on.

Of course, there's a certain emotional toughening that one must endure in order to transcend "ordinary" in the duplicitous world of professional music -- it is, in fact, extraordinary to continue to appear so ordinary. And so we can call the Heartbreakers just another band outta Gainesville -- "a gang, a bunch of guys to hang around with", as Tench explains -- knowing all too well that it's never that simple.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.