Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been an undeniable force in American rock music for the past three decades. As a rock band, they kept true to their three chord inspirations when other bands were producing long, bloated, eight-minute art rock pieces. While this adherence would get them lumped into the burgeoning punk movement with bands like Talking Heads, the Ramones and others, it was nothing more than the actualization of the band’s “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” credo. As Pearl Jam frontman and Petty fan Eddie Vedder states, “The first time you hear a new Tom Petty song, it already sounds like a classic.”
Unfortunately, Runnin’ Down A Dream comes off feeling more like a rather shallow, four-hour episode of VH-1’s Behind The Music than a documentary that probes the history of the band. Despite already knowing the band’s history, there are plenty of great live concert and behind-the-scenes footage sure to please fans. But while Tom Petty may sing that he won’t back down, this documentary takes every opportunity to back away from examining Petty’s personal life and its relationship to his music. Early in the film, Petty states that he was only married a few days before his original band headed to Los Angeles. His wife is next mentioned briefly 20 years later in the band’s history during a short segment about a 1987 fire that destroyed Petty’s home. A third mention, thrown out off-handedly, credits her divorce from Petty as the inspiration for a song.
Also left unexamined is the impact that drugs had on the band. There are a few fleeting references to pot, including a story played strictly for laughs, that when it comes time to discuss bassist Howie Epstein death from a heroine overdose, the news seems to come from completely out of the blue.
Although the movie professes to want to be strictly about the band and its music, it fails to recognize that such things are rarely created in a vacuum. Band mates and friends talk about Petty being an instinctual artist, where songs are not agonized over so much as spontaneously created. While it is admirable that Petty may not want to question too deeply his own creative process, it seems a disservice to the audience for the movie not to explore those issues.
The film makes a few claims that may strike some as dubious, such the boast the Petty was the first artist to sue his record company for control of his music. True, Petty was involved in a legal struggle with MCA Records in the late 1970s, but Frank Zappa had been in a similar suit at the early part of the same decade. It may be cynical to point out that Zappa’s law suit was with Warner Brothers Records who produced this film, but those are the facts and I’ll leave it to the reader draw their own conclusion.
As it stands, Runnin’ Down A Dream is a nice, if a bit dry and self-congratulatory, primer for those interested in a surface history of the band or just looking for a great collection of concert and behind-the-scenes footage. Those more interested in a deeper understanding of the man behind the music will have to look elsewhere.