Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Learning to Fly: Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)

Until I recently caught up with director Peter Bogdanovich’s highly engaging four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007), I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. What Runnin’ Down a Dream helped me realize is how Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, for the last 33 years, have kept some of the idealistic dreams of the sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” plaintive ballads like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played.

I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Tom Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that “[Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers] didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of The British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it.” Runnin’ Down a Dream illustrates how Petty and his group have kept that faith despite some definite bumps in the road to challenge it.

Comparable in scope, and as informative, as Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home on the early years of Bob Dylan, Runnin’ Down a Dream covers the first 30 years in the history of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Even at four hours, there isn’t an ounce of fat anywhere in it. Bogdanovich basically bottles the essence of what truly inspires the love that many fans feel for Petty’s music. It’s also clear that Bogdanovich, who showed such a tin ear for music in earlier features like At Long Last Love (1975) and The Thing Called Love (1993), has recovered his sense of how important musical roots are to a subject, something he illustrated so well in The Last Picture Show (1971).

The root saga of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is certainly a compelling one to comprehend. Beginning in Gainsville, Florida, Petty had an interest in rock since he was ten when he met Elvis Presley, who was shooting Follow That Dream (1960) in neighbouring Ocala. But when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, he knew he wanted to be in a band. Runnin’ Down a Dream shows how Petty quickly assembled a band known as the Sundowners, which later evolved into Mudcrutch. Although this group would feature future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, they were fired when Shelter Records preferred Petty as a solo act. Ironically, when hunting for a band to back him up, he discovered that Campbell and Tench had joined up with hometown drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair. They would finally make up The Heartbreakers line-up that would go on to record Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976), You’re Gonna Get It! (1978), Damn the Torpedoes (1979) and Hard Promises (1981).

The movie follows a number of key moments in their career: Petty’s war against MCA Records to win back his publishing prior to the release of Damn the Torpedoes, plus his battle with the record industry over the high pricing of LPs in early eighties. While Bogdanovich does extensive interviews with Petty and band members, the film is hardly hagiographic. He examines all the frustrations within the group, including the brief departure of Ron Blair, the tragic drug problems of his replacement Howie Epstein (who would later die due to his addiction to heroin), and the departure of Stan Lynch when Petty went solo in the late 1980s (first in the Traveling Wilburys – with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison – and then later on his own).

Mostly, Peter Bogdanovich examines how the music created familial bonds between the members of the group, so much so that we see their frustrations as part of their deep love for what they do. Of course, Runnin’ Down a Dream features plenty of music and archival footage that illustrates the integrity Petty possesses and to what lengths he’ll go to protect it. (In one instance, he goes to bat for former Byrd Roger McGuinn who is about to do a solo album with songs not worthy of him. We see Petty take on the A & R men in the studio on behalf of McGuinn.)

Runnin’ Down a Dream is made with a lot of affection. Bogdanovich shows us the demands that love can make on a group, as well as on an audience that’s grown to adore the band and their music. He not only heightens the band’s appeal in Runnin' Down a Dream. He honours it.

--.Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, teacher and author. His latest CBC Radio documentary, This Song is Your Song: The Story of Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew (with sound design by John Corcelli), premieres on Inside the Music this Saturday, September 18th at 9pm on Radio One and Sirius Satellite Radio. It also airs on Radio 2 on Sunday, September 19 at 3pm.

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