Down a Dream
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
e’s been around so long that it’s sometimes tempting to think he’s always just been here, rocking gently in the background, but Tom Petty was once a no-account kid with a dream, just like you and me – and although he arguably hasn’t released an interesting album since 1989’s Full Moon Fever (or a front-to-back good one since 1994’s Wildflowers), he’s got a story as fascinating as any of rock & roll’s elder statesmen. It’s a good thing, too, because Peter Bogdanovich’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” – released for the first time on DVD last year, and appearing now in a slimmed-down double-disc, 240-minute edition – delves more deeply into that story than your average rockumentary.
For the casual Petty fan, the idea of a four-hour documentary dedicated to his life and career may seem more than a little ridiculous – and honestly, it probably is – but to Bogdanovich’s extreme credit, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” feels shorter than many 90-minute films. It’ll appeal more deeply to passionate music fans than casual consumers – if you know anyone who makes a point of catching VH1 Classics’ periodic airings of Eagle Music’s “Classic Albums Series” episodes, this will make an ideal Christmas gift – but given its scope and depth, it’s really an achievement in filmmaking no matter which angle you approach it from.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that Bogdanovich got lucky on a couple of levels. First, Petty and his compatriots seem to have kept an impressively detailed film archive; no matter which era of the band’s career the movie is focusing on, there are usually a few rolls of footage to go along with it, including some fascinating glimpses at Petty’s studio methodology. Second – and arguably most important – Petty and the Heartbreakers came up at the perfect time. They entered an industry that hadn’t yet built up its defenses against determined outsiders, crested as the major labels were consolidating control of the business, and entered their golden years as sales entered their late ‘90s tailspin; as a result, the band gives Bogdanovich not only a series of priceless stories, but a pretty decent metaphor for the industry that made them famous.
Those stories are too numerous to go into here; hell, given the movie’s length, even cobbling together a complete list of the interviewees would be impossible. The rough outline goes as follows: Scrappy gaggle of Gainesville rednecks hears Elvis and the Beatles, falls in love with rock & roll, heads West to make it big, and goes down in rock & roll history, holding fast to unsexy things like loyalty (the original lead singer of Petty’s first band is now the Heartbreakers’ lighting designer) and integrity (Petty led a pair of high-profile legal battles against MCA, one of which temporarily kept record prices from rising to the then-princely sum of $9.98).
Perhaps most impressive is that Bogdanovich manages to maintain a snappy pace even while giving more or less equal time to later Petty albums. The narrative skips over Pack Up the Plantation and She’s the One, but it lingers longer over latter-day releases than even the most generous episode of “Behind the Music”; you get the back story behind underappreciated albums such as 1999’s Echo, 2002’s The Last DJ, and 2006’s Highway Companion, and if Bogdanovich shies away from the band’s rapidly declining commercial profile in those years, it’s a forgivable sin, especially when held up against the refreshing level of candor displayed by all the principals. You don’t get through 30 years in an industry without a certain number of nasty entanglements, and Petty discusses them all with the same sleepy-eyed demeanor with which he relives his triumphs. Dustups with producers Denny Cordell and Jimmy Iovine, battles with industry bigwigs, and drummer Stan Lynch’s obviously acrimonious departure from the Heartbreakers are all fair game. If any topic can be said to get the kid glove treatment, it’s the slow decline and death of bassist Howie Epstein, but the band doesn’t shy away from their feelings about the end of Epstein’s life, they simply avoid going into a lot of detail. It’s understandable.
All in all, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is one of the most entertainingly in-depth rockumentaries to come down the pike in recent memory, and now that you don’t have to purchase the ridiculous four-DVD “collectors’ edition” to see it, no rock fan should be without it. Even casual fans of Petty’s work, or those who have left the fold as he’s drifted from punchy Byrds/Cars hybrid to ballad-loving greybeard, will find themselves drawn in quickly, and held until the triumphant closing shots. Highly recommended.