Last night my husband and I saw the four-hour Peter Bogdanovich mega-documentary “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” during its one-night-only showing in Boston (the movie will soon be released on DVD).
The film painted a remarkable picture of a career that spans more than 30 years and has channeled at various moments the best essences of punk, rock and roll, country, and folk music. More than that, though, the movie told a story that should inspire anyone with creative aspirations to believe that doing meaningful work is possible if you stay true to yourself.
Tom Petty was just a kid from Florida who loved guitars more than anything else in his life. Born in 1950, he had the predictable musical fascinations of his time, his world opening by leaps and bounds when first Elvis Presley and then The Beatles came onto the scene. He also had the incredible luck to grow up with a group of friends that would become lifelong musical companions–with their share of ups and downs, but without the usual debilitating power struggles that often plague groups with a frontman who’s more famous than the band members.
What shines through about Petty is that he’s isn’t greedy, he doesn’t have delusions of grandeur, and he never let himself become enamored with his own fame and fortune–he is just a talented musician and songwriter who wanted to keep going with the mystical process of getting ideas and bring those ideas to life. Not to put too Buddhist a point on it, but Petty really seems to have lived his life always in the present moment, not yearning to reach the next tier of fame to self-destructive results.
He was always ambitious, to be sure, but never blindingly so. He just kept working, succeeding, and growing. Later in his career, when he had the chance to work with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Johnny Cash, Petty always talks in terms of what he learned from those men, his awe at being in their company never really dissipating.
The film’s weakness is that it covers Petty’s personal life as an afterthought–he mentions in passing that he got married the day before leaving Gainesville in the mid-1970s to pursue his recording dreams, but his wife isn’t mentioned again until his 1999 album “Echo” is described as being about his painful divorce. His daughter is interviewed talking about the 1987 fire that destroyed their home (arson was suspected), but he is never on camera talking about marriage or fatherhood. His family was his band, his professional focus unshakeable, but one has to wonder what effect that had on his personal relationships.
Petty’s own father is shown to be a dark, abusive figure in his life. The seeds of anger that were planted in Petty’s childhood would later fuel his ambition and the edge in his songwriting. They would also make him into a man with no tolerance for injustice, fighting–and winning–battles against the music industry over publishing rights to his music and, later, the rising price of record albums.
Despite this crusader image, the man isn’t an innocent–he stole bassist Howie Epstein from his friend Del Shannon, he admits later to not doing as much as he could have to help Epstein, who died at age 47 from a heroin overdose.
But the Tom Petty of this film is still someone immensely likeable. He’s a patient man with his craft–he describes sitting for a solid week with only the guitar riff that would later become “The Waiting.” And through that patience, he’s achieved a longevity that is refreshing in this age of image consultants.
The last half hour of “Runnin'” was mostly taken up with comments on how amazing it is that Petty has been so successful for so long. While this seemed boringly self-congratulatory to me at first, I really think that there is room for genuine admiration for this band that has stayed relevant through 3 decades of tumult both inside and outside of the music business. We don’t all get chances to run after our dreams, much less catch up with them, and it inspired me that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has done both.