Tom Petty: How I found the real Tom
By Andrew Perry
The Daily Telegraph — December 13, 2007
Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour film about veteran US rocker Tom Petty is one of the best ‘rock docs’ for a long time. He tells Andrew Perry the secret of his success
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in pop in 2007 came this summer, when a re-issue of two seemingly forgotten LPs from the late 1980s by the Travelling Wilburys topped the album charts. The band was a supergroup, featuring Bob Dylan, ex-Beatle George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne from ELO, and Tom Petty.
At the time, this astonishing aggregation of top-flight artists was rather frowned upon, their easy-going breed of rock viewed as a waste of talent, an indulgence from indolent superstars. On release back then, the two albums barely scraped into the Top 20. The timelessness of the music has eventually won through.
In a new movie documentary about Petty, it emerges that the seeds of the Traveling Wilburys were sown at his birthday party in London, on the night of the great storm of 1987. Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, had been touring as Bob Dylan’s backing band, and, while the wind howled outside, he was introduced to Harrison and Lynne, who had been invited along by Dylan’s management. A couple of months later, the Wilburys were up and running.
From a British perspective, Petty has always appeared to be the poor relation in the band’s ranks. Although he got his big break via the British music press and trend-setting television programmes such as The Old Grey Whistle Test, which first took note of the fledgling Heartbreakers in the late ’70s, he has not scaled the same commercial heights here as he has in the United States.
Thanks to his edgy attitude, Petty was initially mistaken for a punk, when, in fact, he was a quintessentially American rocker, cut of the same cloth as Bruce Springsteen. In the US, however, he became one of the giants of the MTV age, scoring numerous video-assisted mega-hits and a string of platinum albums. His high-watermark was possibly 1989’s Full Moon Fever, a sublime collection of melodies co-written with Jeff Lynne, which even made the Top 10 over here, at the tail end of a decade when no-nonsense American rock couldn’t have been less fashionable.
Still, Petty has never quite connected with his rightful transatlantic audience. The documentary presents the most compelling case imaginable for a reappraisal of Petty’s work. Called Runnin’ Down a Dream, it was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the Hollywood director whose big movies, The Last Picture Show (1971) and Mask (1985), have been interspersed by failures, disasters, personal tragedies and numerous critical lashings.
I have to admit that I was daunted at the prospect of ploughing through his four-hour marathon about Petty, but it is an absolutely exemplary “rock doc”. Most tend to cram a career into a soundbite-friendly 45-minute splurge – give or take the odd overdose, they often seem almost interchangeable. Bogdanovich, by contrast, simply allows Petty, his band and his many collaborators to tell his story, as an artist, from beginning to end.
“Success stories are all the same,” the director tells me, when I meet him at a London hotel. “Someone sets out to do something, and then they succeed. Where they’re all different is in the details, and the details take time.”
Bogdanovich, now 68, a keen aficianado of classical music and jazz who is also known for his debonair dress sense, freely admits that he didn’t know a great deal about Petty beforehand. “Some critics in America said they couldn’t imagine me taking off my scarf and letting my hair down long enough to rock out,” he says.
Bogdanovich is, however, a good friend of George Drakoulias, a sometime producer of Petty’s, who drafted him in to make a movie to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Heartbreakers’ debut album.
“I insisted that I conduct all the interviews. Being ignorant of the facts, and being aware that everybody realised that, I knew that they’d take more time telling me things than they would someone who’s an expert. It was a journey of discovery for me, and I was able to bring the audience along with me.”
The film more or less tells the story of rock itself. Petty, aged six, meets Elvis on a movie set. In his teens, he sees the Beatles, starts learning the guitar, forms a band called – brilliantly – Mudcrutch, and hits the road, launching a professional career full of highs, lows, bust-ups, drugs, death, divorce and, frequently, redemption.
Where personal lives are revealed, such as when Petty’s family are almost wiped out by an arson attack on his home, it is only fully to illuminate his creative state of mind at that time. As such, the film is an intricately woven American saga, which becomes more absorbing the longer it goes on.
For Bogdanovich, making the film has plainly been reinvigorating, after many years spent artistically out of sorts, following the murder in the ’80s of his 20-year-old lover Dorothy Stratten.
“For me, that was the end of the world for a while,” he says. “After I started on this movie, I went to a lot of Tom’s concerts. I’d be sitting on stage in the dark and Tom would raise his hands above his head and clap. I’d pan my head to the right, and there would be maybe 80,000 people doing the exact same thing. I thought, I’m in the wrong business.”
The ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’ DVD, including a bonus concert disc and audio CD, is out now through SPV.