Runnin' Down a Dream June 8, 2016
It’s easy to take Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for granted. As one of rock’s most steadily reliable acts, their lack of tragic behind the scenes drama and their collectively grounded presence has characterized them as a rock ’n’ roll mainstay the whole family can take a liking to. Their superiorly exuberant tunes match their working men personalities, their love for their respective occupations obvious in their every endeavor. As a young music fan who’s generally (and usually blissfully) unaware of the tabloid hijinks shadowing any given act’s life (unless reality-based theatrics are really sensational), I had never believed a band as musically inviting (and long-lasting) as Tom Petty’s would be stalked by enough personal intrigue to fill the sum of the parts of a movie.
But wrong is a characteristic I often find myself billed to be when reviewing. As it turns out, Petty and his talented Heartbreakers are interesting enough to serve as backing for a gigantic, four-hour-long documentary that never feels long-winded because there’s so many stories to be told, so many live performances to be seen, relived. Granted, it took me a few days to get through it — if you have enough time in your life to sit through a four-hour piece without interruption, you may as well consider yourself to have a problem — but 2008’s Runnin’ Down a Dream is a masterpiece of a rock documentary, a glistening example of the intimacy the genre can provide for so long as it’s executed carefully.
Directed by filmmaking icon Peter Bogdanovich (who’s better known for fictional works like The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?), it makes for a focused, biographical study of one of America’s greatest rock bands. Discussing everything from Petty and Co.’s early days as Mudcrutch to the 30th anniversary concert of the focal group, no stones are left unturned — what can you overlook, anyway, when editing doesn’t seem to be of much importance and when time is never constrained for sake of forming a conventionally produced movie?
Viewed with a dramatic breath and a sense of determination and you’ll notice that there’s never a dull moment within Runnin’ Down a Dream’s daunting run time: Bogdanovich keeps the pace informative and breezy, only reaching for amusing anecdotes so long as they’re supplementary toward Petty’s persona (cameos by Stevie Nicks, Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, and Johnny Depp are welcomely integrated). Expected are the conversations regarding the messy release of 1979 masterwork Damn the Torpedoes (its production was conflicted by music industry greed Petty wasn’t so fond of), and expected are the mentionings of Petty’s solo work, his collaborating with supergroup Traveling Wilburys, and the rare cases of line-up shift.
But it’s the little things that render Runnin’ Down a Dream as a fascinating biography for fans of the man and his men. I love the first hour’s reminder that The Heartbreakers were huge in England at the beginning of their career, but, by contrast, were not so beloved in America, and I love the way Bogdanovich handles Petty’s tragic encounters: with an empathetic heart and with the characterization that Petty is an idol of the rock scene who’s decidedly not-so rock ’n’ roll, instead caring and appreciative of those closest to him.
What we take away most from Runnin’ Down a Dream, though, is its unmistakable humanity. Because it ignores the banalities of your average documentary, and because it better resembles a paper-and-pencil memoir than it does a detour in filmmaking, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are able to lose their legendary statuses while keeping their respectability intact. A wonderful group they are — but isn’t it refreshing to see a depiction of them that at once idolizes them and hungers to get to know them on a more thorough level? A-