Film celebrates Heartbreak-ing relationships
By Jim Abbott
Orlando Sentinel — October 28, 2007
The tale of the band’s departure from Gainesville is the backbone of the new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream.
Petty, who turned 57 this past weekend, handles most of the narration of his own story on camera, as Bob Dylan did in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home.
While Scorsese’s film narrows its focus to a short span of Dylan’s career in the 1960s, Runnin’ director Peter Bogdanovich ambitiously moves chronologically from Petty’s childhood all the way to his 2006 solo album, Highway Companion.
That approach makes it harder to draw parallels to cultural and social issues. While No Direction Home told Dylan’s story against the backdrop of Vietnam and the civil-rights movement, the biggest issue in the Petty film is the singer’s fight against greedy record companies and high CD prices in the 1980s.
Fortunately, the band’s story is compelling enough, touching realistically on nearly every Almost Famous rock cliché-i: hard times, adulation, money, excess, sex, death and survival. Unlike in the Dylan film, these band members acknowledge the presence of drugs, including the heroin-related death of bassist Howie Epstein in 2003.
Fittingly, Petty’s vast catalog of hit songs provides the thread that ties the story together. The music is a continuous soundtrack over the four hours, with behind-the-scenes studio footage and concert clips from the band’s 2006 Gainesville homecoming.
That music has allowed Petty to remain relevant from 1970s New Wave through MTV, grunge, boy-bands and hip-hop. He has worked with Dylan, Johnny Cash, Rick Rubin, George Harrison. Pearl Jam and Johnny Cash both covered his signature “I Won’t Back Down.”
Petty’s songwriting is often underappreciated, says author Paul Zollo, who focused on the singer’s creative process in his 2005 book Conversations with Tom Petty ($24.95, Omnibus Press).
“He gets compared with people like Springsteen or Dylan, who are more obvious geniuses, and I think that in their shadows, he gets minimized,” Zollo says. “As far as musicians, there has never been any underestimation of the band. The Heartbreakers are one of the great rock and roll bands of all time.”
A band, not just one guy
Ultimately, the documentary is a celebration of enduring relationships within that band.
“I was really looking for that thing that the Beatles seemed to have,” keyboardist Benmont Tench says in the film. “Just a bunch of guys to hang around with.
Like a gang, like a bunch of friends that made music, that all loved a certain thing and did it.”
There were personnel changes over the years. Original bassist Ron Blair left relatively early on, then returned after Epstein’s death. Drummer Stan Lynch departed when he didn’t want to adapt to Petty’s more understated material on 1994’s Wildflowers and was replaced by Steve Ferrone.
Even when Petty did solo albums, such as that one, the Heartbreakers found their way into the mix.
“I wanted to be in a band,” Petty says at one point. “I didn’t want to be a solo guy. . . . No matter how good the musicians, they weren’t my guys.”
In the film, Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell both acknowledge how hard it is to keep a band together for 30 years. Although Petty is the leader, the others always have an opinion.
“It’s certainly not some job where I feel like I’m Tom Petty’s backup piano player,” Tench says. “I feel like I’m in a band with the guy.”
Runnin’ Down a Dream opens a window on that experience for the rest of us.