Documentary puts rare spotlight on Tom Petty
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune — October 29, 2007
Tom Petty’s lip curls in disgust. He is reading the lyrics to a song that Roger McGuinn, one of his heroes, has been given by a record company executive to sing.
“Are you getting a kickback on this?” Petty fumes as the label representative argues for the song’s validity. “This is a bad song … This is just perpetrating the depth of [junk] we’re in with pop music.”
McGuinn stands uncomfortably while his record-company man squirms. Later, the Byrds legend acknowledges that he might have been willing to record the song to mollify the label until Petty stepped in. “He was being my hero,” McGuinn says. “Standing up to those guys.”
The scene, from the early ’90s, is one of the more revealing moments in Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” which debuts at 6 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel (it will be rebroadcast at 2 a.m. Wednesday and 2 p.m. Saturday).
Petty is not larger than life. He’s not Mick Jagger, Bono, Elvis Presley or Britney Spears. He has managed to sell 50 million albums over three decades with a band of boyhood friends he met in sleepy Gainesville, Fla. He’s semifamous, but for what exactly? People might know a few of his songs — “Free Fallin'” or “Refugee,” perhaps — but not much else. And that’s just the way Petty likes it.
A self-effacing rock star
There are few rock stars more self-effacing, and few with more integrity. Petty has spent a lifetime sticking up for what he feels is right against a music industry that likes its rock stars pliant and uncomprehending about business affairs. Petty sued his way out of an onerous publishing deal that bankrupted him after his first record deal, and successfully fought his old record label when it tried to raise the price of one of his albums to a “superstar” level of $9.98 from the then-standard $8.98.
He has never allowed one of his songs to appear in an advertisement, has refused to tour with corporate sponsors, has consistently held his ticket prices below market rate, and released an album in 2002, “The Last DJ,” that held the music industry to account in a culture of vanishing freedoms.
Along the way he has written dozens of excellent songs, and made a series of remarkably consistent albums. He has collaborated with legends: Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash. Like John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, he is a rocker who has done his job very well over a long period of time, without the distraction of celebrity.
All of which makes him a figure worthy of respect, if not necessarily a likely subject for a four-hour documentary. That didn’t deter Bogdanovich, an acclaimed filmmaker (“The Last Picture Show,” “Mask”) and author, who is clearly a fan. He has made documentaries about his heroes before (his “Directed by John Ford” is considered the definitive work on the director), and he approaches Petty with a similar mix of journalistic thoroughness and worshipful zeal. Those looking for dirt beyond the usual tales of drug use and intraband personality clashes won’t find it here.
Petty is a wry, self-deprecating commentator with a backbone. He can be mercenary, as when he briefly dumped his bandmates to sign a solo record deal at the outset of his career, but in general he comes across as a decent guy who found his dream job and never took it for granted. That’s because music came into his life when he needed it most — as a kid with an abusive father growing up in a dead-end town — and he clung to it like a lifeline.
Even the normally tight-lipped Heartbreakers talk. They are all strong-willed individuals, willing to defer to Petty’s leadership but not blindly follow it. Keyboardist Benmont Tench in particular comes across as the group’s conscience, a brilliant musician and an even better bandmate.
Not a backup piano player
“I don’t feel like Tom Petty’s backup piano player,” Tench says. “I feel like I’m in a band with the guy.”
That attitude permeates the music; Petty’s music has always had an ensemble feel, the Heartbreakers’ performances inextricable from the songs. Even his “solo” recordings have had contributions from the band members.
Yet there is tension, and bandmates who were friends from childhood come and go; one — bassist Howie Epstein — dies of heroin abuse.
“The great tragedy of the Heartbreakers was losing him,” Petty says. There are other setbacks: Petty’s divorce, the fire that destroyed his home and a lifetime of possessions, the hand he shattered in frustration during a recording session.
But “Runnin’ Down a Dream” doesn’t run on soap-opera fumes. It’s the story of a working band. That isn’t particularly sexy fodder for a documentarian. It doesn’t make for many shocking scenes. But then, consider how many bands lose their mojo after a few albums, let alone a decade. How many of them wind up looking foolish, or dated, or turn into nostalgia acts only in it for the money. Then consider Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The power of Bogdanovich’s movie is cumulative: Here is how one band made a volatile marriage of friendship, talent, ego, ambition and musicianship flourish for 30 years.