[written October 24, 2007]
One of the reasons that great art means so much to us is because we find ourselves reflected and expressed in it, even when it is other people’s creations. For a long while now, I have figured out the formula to really understanding my mind and my heart for anyone interested. If you can understand Friedrich Nietzsche, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the New York Mets, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, you’ll have as good a window into my soul as any I myself could create. I have already resolved that if I ever find a woman whose heart beats to these things the way mine does, I’d might as well just go ahead and propose right off.
And so, it was a big, huge deal for me to see the most important and comprehensive documentary of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ unbelievable career. So, obviously, what follows will be the review from a total fan. Dismiss it on that basis if you will, but I honestly think you’ll be missing out on an important recommendation for film and music lovers alike.
Review upcoming in a series of short posts.
The Music, Not “Behind” It
The first thing worth praising about this amazing documentary is that it’s about the men and the music. It’s not about lurid details, it’s not a manipulation of material to tell an artificial story of rise to glory, burn out, redemption, and new beginnings. Tom’s story is filled with highs and lows that could be generically forced into this boilerplate, formulaic mythos in terms of which VH1 manages to characterize every freaking rock band. But refreshingly, Bogdanovich doesn’t reduce these great artists’ story into a childish and convenient morality tale. These are real lives. There are ups and downs, periods of euphoria and those of despair, friends made and friends lost, and that’s it. No overplaying sentiment or drawing morals needed.
While I liked Walk The Line, for example, very much, I didn’t like the way it told such an incomplete story of such a great artist’s life. I know that he liked to see his life as a Christian redemption story like was made in the film. But it did a disservice to the richness of a great man’s life to skip those 30 years after he married June and overcame his addictions. I found it degrading in a way to say the only thing worth really focusing on was his addicted period. Many, many people get addicted. The tiniest handful get to be Johnny Cash. Show some more of what it was to be Johnny Cash.
And along these lines, this documentary of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers covers the private addictions of the band, even when they lead to death, and the infamous conflicts that led Stan Lynch to leave the band, without sensationalizing anything. As Benmont Tench, the amazing keys man of The Heartbreakers mentions in the documentary (and I paraphrase), it used to be that you were interested in learning an artist’s take on the world, now it’s who they’re sleeping with.
This film is about the artists’ takes on the world and about the most important thing about them, the incredible music they have ceaselessly produced for 30 years of rarely paralleled commitment to musical integrity and consistent production.
A Whole Life and Career on Film
It’s been reported that Bogdanovich went through over 300 hours of footage in putting together this film, and that was after countless more hours of available footage were whittled down for him by archivists who categorized the material.
I have numerous dvds and videos of live Tom Petty concerts, documentaries, collections of Tom’s videos and those of the Travelling Wilburys. I pretty much have everything released and many things that only appeared on TV. And I’ve seen my fair share of what’s on youtube, etc. And I have to say that there is a remarkable representation of the available footage. A truly judicious and admirable sampling of what’s there. A couple really sweet moments were when they found little moments that were favorites of mine and included them. It’s not exhaustive of course by any means at all. There are of course many omissions. But overall, this is an incredible 4 hour distillation of what one finds through amassing a larger collection.
There’s Ron Blair’s prescient 1993 joke about being scheduled to rejoin the band in 2001 long before Howie Epstein’s tragic death in 2002 led to his actual return. There’s wonderful footage of The Travelling Wilburys writing rehearsing, recording. Any fan of the Beatles, Roy Orbison, or Bob Dylan just can’t miss this stuff. (At least youtube it people!!) There’s Stan’s last performance with the band in a living room, playing Mary Jane’s Last Dance, the last song he recorded before leaving the band for good. And, as they say “much much more.”
But, beyond just reproducing previously released footage from prior documentaries and live concerts, Bogdanovich was able to incorporate an incredible amount of home video footage and stills of numerous moments along their way to the top, including plenty of material Tom and the band reportedly didn’t really know about before this project. It’s as thorough a capturing of every phase of an artist’s entire life on film as you could manage.
Scoring a Story in Songs
It’s greatly satisfying how close to completely Bogdanovich represents the scope and power of Petty’s music without ever deviating from the primary task of telling the story of his life. Few songs recur as Bogdanovich shows 1:30 minute clips of most songs almost always linking closely the music and live performances of a given time to the images of that time. And often, there are extremely happy coordinations between song lyric and the storyline. So the pauses to watch Tom and the gang perform at a given period of life don’t interrupt the storyline so much as often comment on it artistically, through lyrics. There are just beautiful and ingenious combinations of emotions and musical expressions of them that all follow a great chronological progression.
And while the full breadth and depth of Tom’s incredible catalogue is inexhaustible in under 4 hours, so many songs that really deserved representation got it.
The only sad snub (though an expected one) was any incorporation of the wonderful music Tom put on the soundtrack of She’s the One. I love that album and was sad to see it omitted entirely. Long After Dark got an odd sort of snubbing too. As has been chronicled before, Jimmy Iovine’s insistence that Tom not include the wonderful songs “Keeping Me Alive” and “Trailer” on the album was the symbolic creative difference that represents the rift between Tom and Jimmy that had grown by the time they finished that record, which had been their third together. Tom bashes the album often as one where he had gotten stagnant. I really love the album but understand his thought process. Anyway, ironically, the song here to represent the album is the song omitted from the album, “Keeping Me Alive” and then an explanation from both Tom and Jimmy about how such a great song didn’t make the cut. As wonderful as “Keeping Me Alive” was and as big a treat as it was to see the band perform it, the songs “Deliver Me,” “Straight Into Darkness,” “Change of Heart,” and “Magnolia” are too special to me to see them all snubbed.
Echo gets limited exposure too but they do a wonderful job of demonstrating Howie’s contribution to the band with that album and Benmont has a wonderful moment reflecting on Howie and what he meant to the band and his contribution even during his most heroin ruined time with the band. Bogdanovich here and elsewhere does a marvelous job of highlighting a piece of the music to say something about what makes it work in a way that makes it completely obvious to the listening viewer.
There are also subtle touches like the way that after the opening performance from 2006, you never see Scott Thurston until he is introduced in the story. Watching, I perked up and thought, “Hey, there’s Scott” unassumingly in just a third of the screen when the camera pulls back. And then, sure enough, he’s introduced. It’s a suble but welcome touch the way Bogdanovich keeps the story so basically chronological, capturing the sense of how things unfold through time rather than lumping the images and music of a life together in a deceptive whole.
A Story About Integrity
I always wanted the documentary to be named I Won’t Back Down but can respect the choice to frame it as Runnin’ Down A Dream, a less combative and more upbeat, classic American framing for a band that Bogdanovich has claimed epitomizes the American Dream.
Nonetheless, Tom’s integrity is as defining a feature as anything. Through reading and seeing tons of stuff about Tom’s various legal battles with corrupt music companies, the story had never been articulated so clearly in its details as here. Tom isn’t heroized out of proportion but the facts speak for themselves. He fought for the rights to his own music against unjust record contracts and then he fought for fair prices for his fans when he refused to let them raise the price of records by starting with his own. Later on we see an incredible piece of candid footage in which Tom stands up for his musical influence and long time friend The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn by insisting that the execs and producers trying to get him to record commercialistic crap go to hell. He insists that McGuinn is a great artist deserving better and goes to the mat when McGuinn himself was willing not to fight for his own integrity.
These sorts of moments are consistent throughout Tom’s entire career. The next evidence of selling out I see from the man will be the first.
The Interview Subjects
They could have interviewed more people, that’s for sure. But I doubt it would have made the documentary much better. What’s important is that they have plenty of interview footage with the people who matter most, the band members themselves who tell the story themselves. It was an elegant and appreciated choice to forego narration. In addition to the band though there are some wonderful commentators on the bands history including the five most important producers of their career, Denny Cordell, Jimmy Iovine, Dave Stewart, Jeff Lynne, and Rick Rubin. You get a wonderful sense from the narrative of the significance that each producer brought to Tom’s career. Each producer represents extremely specific developments in his music and his career and it’s nice to see their views sufficiently represented.
And a special touch for me was to see Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder, replete with great footage of their respective famous performances with the band. In 1994, no non-Christian bands besides Metallica and “Weird Al” meant any more to me than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. So it was really sweet to me to hear Grohl and Vedder express what Tom means to them.
Also a neat little treat is to see Johnny Depp who famously was in Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open video in 1991. Tim Burton’s my favorite director, his and my favorite living actor is obviously Mr. Depp. It’s nice to also tightly connect that dot over to Tom Petty. It reinforces the sense to me that there is a consistency to my sensibility that even the artists I admire share among themselves. I really dig that. Though of course I can’t take that too far—-Petty loves westerns immensely and I hate them. But Petty encapsulates everything great about westerns and old school country music. That is country music before it became what Petty characterizes its present form as—-bad rock bands with a fiddle.
The biggest surprise though was the wonderful, passionate, insightful commentary from, of all people, an MTV executive. He reappears periodically throughout the documentary and some of his thoughts were just great.
I laughed, I cried
Tom’s trademark droll sense of humor that conistently comprises a good bit of what makes his lyrics so remarkable also comes through in interviews. And Bogdanovich’s droll editing gives the whole film Tom’s sense of humor. Comedy is about timing and so is editing and Bogdanovich edits some good laughs into the proceedings.
You probably won’t cry because Tom and his songs probably don’t mean to you what they mean to me. But three or four times, I really teared up. And not at the moments you’d guess even. Just certain songs and certain moments in their story that struck me as especially special. The presentation of the great song “The Waiting” was just so celebratory that it made me surprisingly emotional, for example. Again, as I said before, this film does so much tribute to the music.
Don’t Do Me Like That
There are a few problems worth noting. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live are a whole different, equally special thing to what they are on records. The film shows ample live footage but doesn’t really show enough of the musical innovation that they bring to live interpretations of their songs. Also, there’s not an adequate demonstration of how much their live shows incorporate an unbelievable range of covers that express their bottomless knowledge of their forerunners from rock and roll artists to bluegrass artists to country artists to surf rock artists to psychedelics, etc. Even a ten minute montage of this would have sufficed to highlight more explicitly their range. And additionally, their classic live reinterpretation of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” that was a huge highlight of their late ’80s/early ’90s shows deserved some attention.
The film relied in the end (literally, at the end of the film) too heavily on the 2006 Gainesville homecoming concert. That tour is extremely special to me as it was the first tour I saw the band live and the tour that sparked an all-consuming obsession with collecting every live performance, video, studio release, etc. that I could get my hands on. But even as important as it is to me, it’s too much attention on one concert here at the end when some more time could have been spent on some other aspects of their concerts from along the way.
What makes this choice especially unfortunate is that the movie is sold with that full Gainesville concert as another disc in the boxset. So, it’s redundant to include so much of it in the film at the expense of other vital pieces of that 300+ hours worth of material that was available.
Ultimately it’s not a big deal to me as I own more than I could have ever ask by way of live recordings and videos from the band anyway. But it would have been nice for the official record to give a more representative look at what the band offers by way of transformation of their own songs and by way of infectious tribute to their forerunners live.
The Bonus CD!
Okay, finally getting around to checking out the bonus CD. I stress again, I have somewhere over 90 discs of live music. But I don’t have any of this. They did a bang up job of finding neat rare live recordings. Two that are particularly special are a cover an awesomely old school country song “Lost Highway” which they perform in a rehearsal in the film but which I have never heard them do live otherwise and “Honey Bee” from the Saturday Night Live with Dave Grohl playing a mean set of drums.
I love the intros to the versions of “Breakdown” and “Fooled Again” here as they are unique (and again, I’ve heard plenty of versions)
The sound quality on all these live recordings is just spectacular, something one is not quite used to when trading in bootlegs The “Keeping Me Alive” here is especially sweet as previously I’d only heard the studio version on Playback, the collection of greatest hits and rarities, and the one really rough bootleg available of it. I love that bootleg to death but this is a super-sweet, high quality version of it. And I might have never heard so good a live take of “Shadow of a Doubt.” These are really great recordings.
Another neat aspect for the pettyphile and the pettynewbie alike