Should I Watch..? 'Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream'
What's the Big Deal?
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream is a musical documentary film released in 2007 and was directed by veteran Peter Bogdanovich. The four-hour film covers the band's entire career from its beginnings in Petty's hometown of Gainsville, Florida in 1970 to their hugely successful homecoming concert on September 21st, 2006. The film also features interviews with the band and other famous fans as well as concert footage throughout the years. The film was initially released as part of a four-disc set together with a DVD of the Gainsville concert and a CD of rare recordings. For fans of the band, it is simply unmissable but the documentary also serves as an example of how other bands can document their rock-and-roll lifestyles in an enthralling and enjoyable way.
What's It About?
The film opens with the band's opening number at their legendary 30th anniversary concert before going all the way back to Petty's childhood, examining why he chose to become a musician. After meeting guitarist Mike Campbell, pianist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair, they formed their first band Mudcrutch but quickly found that success eluded them. Deciding to head to California in search of a record deal, Petty declined the record company's demands for him to be a solo artist and instead formed his group, The Heartbreakers.
Initially finding success in Europe instead of the US, the band continued to make records in spite of the demands of the labels they recorded for with Petty himself becoming an advocate for artistic liberty over commercial success. As the band grew in stature among fans and other musicians, internal squabbling and tragic events threaten to derail the band but through it all, Petty's friendship with the band's core remains strong and helps the group overcome their difficulties and produce a back catalogue of songs that are simply timeless.
Trailer - Contains One Rude Word
Keyboards, backing vocals
Bass, backing vocals
Guitar, harmonica, synthesizer
Bass, backing vocals
Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Release Date (US)
14th October, 2007
What's to Like?
For fans of the group, there isn't much to criticise Runnin' Down a Dream for—it's the ultimate blend of archive footage, live appearances, musical performances and interviews with the band as well as celebrity accomplices and endorsements. No aspect of the group is left untouched over the extensive running time, from the group's origins as the atrociously-named Mudcrutch to their homecoming concert in Gainsville, Florida for their 30th anniversary. In between, Bogdanovich uses actual home video shot by the band at the time covering their relocation to California, their first tours in Europe and the rock-and-roll excess lived off and sometimes on stage. You'd almost think he had travelled back in time to capture the footage.
Through it all, of course, is the music and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are responsible for some of the best rock songs of the last thirty years. From intimate studio sessions to sold-out gigs to the back of a tour bus, the film is sound-tracked throughout with their biggest hits as well as some forgotten classics from dusty albums. I was most touched by the footage of the late Howie Epstein and Tom's eulogy for him on camera was just beautiful. Looking at the film following Tom's own passing in 2017 (and being lucky enough to see them at their final UK appearance in Hyde Park that year), you get a sense of how enormously talented a songwriter he was but also incredibly generous as a musician. He feels like a reluctant front-man, happy to just let the music do the talking and making sure every member of the band is given equal respect.
- For the five years Mudcrutch were originally together (1970-75), they only released one single which was poorly received. When the group reformed in 2007, they went on to record their first album before releasing a second in 2016.
- The film doesn't feature any material from the band's last two albums, "Mojo" and "Hypnotic Eye" which were released after the film.
- Five songs from the 30th anniversary concert featured in the film would later appear on a live anthology album released in 2009 - "I'm A Man", "It's Good To Be King", "Mary Jane's Last Dance", "Runnin' Down A Dream" and "Southern Accents".
What's Not to Like?
If you're not a fan of the band then four hours is a long time to be sat watching a documentary about a group you've no interest in. Naturally, you'll be unlikely to watch this if you aren't. But the film is more than a slightly loved-up portrayal of the group - it examines how record companies often take advantage of their performers with unhelpful and restrictive contracts as well as the sheer effort and determination to become successful. It also takes an unflinching look at the various departures from the band such as drummer Stan Lynch who becomes disillusioned and bitter with the group after a change of direction.
My only real concern, such as it is, is the lack of actual dissent. Obviously, the film is made in conjunction with the group and I sometimes felt that the band were telling their own story, possibly glossing over some of the more unsavoury incidents and stories. For example, there isn't much mention of the group's history with drugs - Petty's reason for wearing sunglasses in the video for "Free Fallin'" was because he was completely stoned - so I suspect there may be some delicate air-brushing involved somewhere. Other than that, take a seat and make yourself comfortable with this wonderful documentary about a band often overlooked.
Might be a good idea to pop to the toilet as well!
Should I Watch It?
Essential for fans of the band, the film is a wonderful tribute to one of the all-time great rock bands who have somehow stuck together and produced a timeless catalogue of songs. Frankly, it makes you wish that Bogdanovich would have the patience or dedication to make similar length documentaries about other bands. In-depth, entertaining and sounding awesome, there really isn't another rock documentary like it out there.
Great For: fans of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, musical historians, cramp
Not So Great For: entertaining children on a long journey
What Else Should I Watch?
I cannot think of many rock documentaries as extensive and exhaustive as Running' Down a Dream but there have certainly been some classics. The Beatles: Eight Days A Week is an illuminating look at the Fab Four's early live appearances in America, spearheading the so-called British Invasion alongside the Rolling Stones - who have loads of documentaries about various tours. Probably the best ones would be Martin Scorsese's Shine A Light and Gimme Shelter which covered the Stones' disastrous appearance at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969. Possibly the most unlikely documentary comes in the form of Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, a delightful and heartwarming film about two lovable metal heads getting into all sorts of scraps attempting to make their long-awaited breakthrough. If it wasn't for This Is Spinal Tap, you'd almost think it was a comedy.
For a more generic look at the history of rock, where better to start with a documentary about the influence of the guitar over music? On paper, It Might Get Loud might not leap off the page but the film tells the story of three of rock's greatest axe-men in history - Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. Lastly, for anyone who prefers a more dramatic retelling of a group's back story, Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen up to their barnstorming and career-reviving appearance at the original Live Aid in 1985. Rami Malek is thoroughly deserving of the many plaudits he won playing Mercury but the film is a bit more uneven in places but at least it has that amazing soundtrack to help.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox