Runnin’ on Empty: Lots of Details, Little Meaning in Tom Petty Documentary
By J. Freedom du Lac
The Washington Post — Monday, October 29, 2007
Nearly an hour into the interminable music documentary “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” Petty himself recalls that rock-and-roll circa 1976 had become bloated. There were too many seven-minute songs, he says. Such a piggish display of excess and self-indulgence!
Petty et al. favored brevity. Their breakout single, “Breakdown”? Two minutes, 42 seconds. “American Girl”? Three minutes, 33 seconds. “Refugee”? Three and change.
“We have a slogan,” Mike Campbell, the band’s superlative guitar slinger, tells the camera. “Don’t bore us — get to the chorus.”
Peter Bogdanovich, are you listening?
In crafting a filmic valentine to Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bogdanovich seems to have gotten lost on his way to the chorus: Either forgetting or ignoring one of his subject’s guiding artistic principles (keep it concise, maaaan), the director has turned “Runnin’ Down a Dream” into an ultra-marathon.
It’s an endurance race, an unending run toward editorial excess, during which Bogdanovich’s editing instincts have cramped up or become blistered.
Bogdanovich’s documentary clocks in at just under four hours. All that time, and you’re still left wondering what makes Petty tick: There’s a whole lot of what here — so many details and snatches of archival footage and interesting if tangential anecdotes — with far too little time spent on why or how. ( More revealing is Paul Zollo’s 2005 book, “Conversations With Tom Petty.”)
Bogdanovich doesn’t get very far behind the music, offering only brief glimpses into Petty’s soul. It’s not enough — particularly given that he’s asking for four hours.
And Petty simply does not warrant that much viewing time. He’s a terrific talent who has written some great songs, has a very good band and has been somewhat underrated throughout his career. But he’s not culturally significant in the way that, say, Elvis Presley or the Beatles are. He’s not endlessly fascinating or deeply mysterious, a la Bob Dylan; Petty is no four-hour brain teaser — even if he seems to have stumped Bogdanovich, who never really manages to get him to talk about the source of his songs and their deeper meaning.
There is much discussion about the recording process during the making of the masterly 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes,” for instance — but very little attention given to the songs themselves. Where did they come from? What were Petty’s motives and inspirations? The guitarist Campbell says he thought the tunes “were going to be timeless; we just had a feeling these were really powerful songs.”
But Petty himself doesn’t offer any elucidation. “It’s so hard to understand,” he says of the artistic process. “I don’t really understand it. It seems that the best ones often just appear. . . . I hesitate to even try to understand it for fear that it might make it go away. It’s a spiritual thing.”
Other people try to explain what makes Petty’s best songs so great. Jimmy Iovine, who produced “Damn the Torpedoes,” says there’s a poetic quality to Petty’s lyrics. “It’s a guy in pain — but it’s very romantic.” Music journalists mention the innocence and simplicity of the lyrics, but also the anguish.
The documentary includes most of the hallmarks of the genre: drug abuse, divorce, record-company problems (in Petty’s case, a historic throwdown with MCA). Bogdanovich covers personnel changes in painstaking detail. Do we really need to hear current Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone recalling the day that Petty asked him to join the band on tour?
There are also the requisite rock-star testimonials, from the likes of Jackson Browne, Dave Grohl and Dave Stewart as well as George Harrison, who speaks from beyond the grave. Stevie Nicks says she would have quit Fleetwood Mac and joined the Heartbreakers if they’d invited her. Eddie Vedder says that “the first time you hear a Tom Petty song, it sounds like a classic.”
There’s an abundance of archival footage, including studio sessions and live performances on television and in concert halls. Lots of music. Plenty of images of Petty: smiling, brooding, strumming, singing. Petty on magazine covers. Petty dancing in a hotel room. Petty upbraiding a record company rep during a recording session with Roger McGuinn.
Petty, Petty, Petty, Petty.
In the beginning, we learn that he was obsessed with westerns and, in turn, liked guitars “because cowboys played the guitar.” He was an Elvis fan. He decided, at the age of 13, when the Beatles performed on “Ed Sullivan,” that his future would be in rock-and-roll. “It all became clear,” he says. After 22 minutes, we’re still in his home town of Gainesville, Fla. Only then does Petty head to Los Angeles in search of a record deal. And then he returns to Florida. And then he heads west again. It takes 41 minutes for Bogdanovich to get around to the release of “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” the band’s 1976 debut.
That’s a lot of throat-clearing, and it doesn’t even include the most interesting biographical morsels — namely, that Petty’s father was emotionally and physically abusive; and that his mother’s death, not long after “Damn the Torpedoes” was released, rocked him. Much, much later, Petty allows that “the dangerous, shadowy figure of a dad and the sweet mom that left too early in your life, I think that gives you a certain drive. . . . I kind of turned that anger into ambition. There was an extreme rage in me.”
But he also says that “when I’m in a good place emotionally, I seem to do the best music.”
So confusing. If only Bogdanovich had more time, he might be able to clarify.