Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The New Tom Petty Doc: Who Knew Bogdanovich Could Rock?

Who knew Peter Bogdanovich could rock?
This guy - the refined ascot wearing autuer who directed THE LAST PICTURE SHOW but is best known to the masses as Dr. Melfi's shrink on The Sopranos not only can rock but he can rock for a long ass time.

Four hours in fact. That's the length of his new rock documentary TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM. I took in the whole thing in one sitting and loved every second of it (I hope my review below won't take 4 hours to read) so let's take in Bogdanovich as he goes off on a Tom Petty tangent: 

(Dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 2007)

"Marty took 3 hours and 40 minutes to tell 6 years of Dylan and I figured, if that's the case, why shouldn't we take 4 hours to tell 30 years of Tom Petty?" - Peter Bogdanovich on Sound Opinions (broadcast January 7th, 2008)

A big package this is - 4 discs, 2 of which are the 4 hour 15 minute director's cut of the documentary, the 3rd disc is the complete 30th Anniversary Gainesville, Florida concert from September 30th, 2006, and the 4th is a soundtrack CD featuring 9 previously unreleased songs. 

Whew! Hard to claim to be just a casual Petty fan after absorbing all of that. Bogdanovich's film even at its bloated length is engrossing and never lags. Framed by footage from the before mentioned concert we are taken through the history of the band with interview segments spliced with photos, fliers, home movies, TV appearances, grainy videotape material, and every other source available. 

The ups and downs are perfectly punctuated with Petty standards - the punchy pop bright Byrds influence that brought forth the break-through single "American Girl" captures the band on a television stage young and green while the promotional video for "Refugee" shows them freshly on the mend from battles with lawyers and declaring bankruptcy. 

 Of course there are unavoidable rockumentary clich├ęs that are as old than THIS IS SPINAL TAP - recording studio squabbles, the trials of transporting drugs over the borders, and the "Free Fallin'"-out of the band when they aren't on the same page but they are amusingly displayed in a knowing manner that transcends the usual VH1 classic fodder. 

It's hard not to think of Scorsese's landmark Dylan doc when putting in disc 2 of RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM for the most obvious reason - as Part 2 starts the first words uttered, by Petty, are "Bob Dylan, I don't think there's anyone we admire more". So the collaboration with Petty and Dylan begins - there is great footage from the HBO special Hard To Handle

Bob thrusts his hand behind him while playing his harmonica on the intro of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" to stop the band from coming in too soon and it's an amazing moment - the greatest songwriter ever (as Petty and I call him) directing the best working class Americana band of the mid '80s and beyond.

Tom and Bob's collaboration led to the Traveling Wilburys - the ultimate supergroup filled out by former Beatle George Harrison, legend Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne of the elaborately Beatle-esque Electric Light Orchestra. Petty's approach was forever altered - which we see as certain band members have to cope with his new direction. Especially former drummer Stan Lynch, (who refused to be interviewed for the film but is presented in archive footage) who says bluntly of Petty's biggest selling album "Full Moon Fever" - "there were more than a couple songs I just didn't like."

Through the '90s up to now we see Petty and the Heartbreakers weather grunge (Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl played with them on SNL right after Lynch left), a death of a long time but still considered "new kid" bassist Howie Epstein, and the competition from a world in which "rock stars were being invented on game shows" all with their self declared "I Won't Back Down" spirit. 

Though you ordinarily wouldn't think of him in the same company as Orson Welles and John Ford, this masterful showcase of material makes a solid case that Petty is indeed in the pantheon of those previous subjects of Bogdanovich's.

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who seems to show up in every rocumentary or rock related movie these days (even WALK HARD), appears at one point to sing a duet with Petty on "The Waiting" at a recent concert. When the song ends and the giant audience erupts Petty says to Vedder, “Look at that, Eddie - rock and roll heaven.”

He's right - for 4 hours and 15 minutes it sure is. 

Bogdanovich's Petty opus may just make a dent in Film Babble Blog's 10 Definitive Rock Docs post coming soon.

More later...


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

For the Beatles entry in the documentary list I would pull Let It Be in favor of those Maysles brothers' First US Visit film.

Anonymous said...

Is the Tom Petty DVD commercially available? I can't seem to find it listed anywhere.

Daniel Cook Johnson said...

The Tom Petty DVD is available from Amazon but is annoyingly not available for rent on Netflix because of some deal with Best Buy.