Peter Bogdanovich's magisterial Runnin' Down a Dream (re-airing tonight and Saturday on The Sundance Channel) does what it wants to do: It makes a powerful case for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as the great American rock and roll band of the last three decades. Petty serves as a laconically compelling narrator, the Heartbreakers (especially an incisive Benmont Tench and a drily bitter Stan Lynch) chip in like color analysts, and the music speaks for itself, a staggering string of one masterful pop song after another. What Petty almost certainly didn't set out to do, though, in what amounts to a four-hour vanity project -- and what Bogdanovich is canny enough to let him do in his own leisurely way -- is explicate some of the darker traits that have helped him stay successful for a thirty-year stretch.
Petty has talent and drive, of course, but the history of rock and roll is littered with the dim memories of guys who had talent and drive. What sets figures like Petty apart is a kind of unapologetic self-obsession. Without any apparent irony, Petty tells two stories an hour or so apart. The first is about producer Denny Cordell signing him to a disastrous first record deal (the one that ultimately led to Petty's famous lawsuit against MCA) and then blithely wanting to stay on friendly terms -- Screw with me, Petty shrugs, and you're not my friend anymore. The second is about the night Petty stole bassist Howie Epstein away from '60s rocker Del Shannon. Don't take Howie away, Petty recalls Shannon begging him in a phone call -- he's my key guy, he's indispensable. Del, Petty remembers saying, I love you. But I'm taking Howie. "He got over it," Petty adds with a small ghost of a smile. You can practically feel a shiver run up your spine, but you have to acknowledge the cold logic of the calculation: Epstein would do better, and make better music, playing bass with the Heartbreakers than cranking out "Runaway" at state fairs. Petty's half-smile seems to say that while this may have left Shannon in the lurch, it was small potatoes in the big scheme of things. There's a more chilling, less excusable moment later on: Petty barely disguises his disgust over the behavior of original drummer Lynch in his last days with the band, recalling the day he "called the office" and told his manager to cut Lynch loose after 19 years. "Damn the torpedoes"? You betcha.
I'm not naive, and I don't need to believe the famous people whose work I admire are always nice guys. And, to reduce the thing to its essentials, anybody who could write "Even The Losers" and "American Girl" in one lifetime is okay by me. It's morbidly fascinating, though, to see what may be the essential motive forces of big-time, long-lasting success played out so starkly. Petty, I have zero doubt, couldn't care less about the unattractive moments revealed over the film's long running time. Which is one of the reasons why he'll be famous for just as long as he wants to be.
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