Tom Petty's songs always take me by surprise. One minute, I'm listening to something like Refugee or The Waiting, sincerely believing that these are among the finest slices of melodic rock ever recorded, the next I'm swept off my feet by the likes of Reverend and the Makers, Fionn Regan or another of new kids in town. Or I fall at the feet of Teenage Fanclub, and forget that the Heartbreakers had taken Byrdsian harmonies and crunchy guitar jangle to a whole new level long before our loveable Glaswegians came on the scene.
Buy a Heartbreakers career retrospective CD and what will amaze is not just the brilliance, but the consistency. The standard of songwriting, coupled with great playing from a superb band, makes you wonder why Petty, despite his success, has never been rated as a rock god along with the likes of Springsteen. My take? The songs are more considered. And it's on the Beatles side of the Stones/Moptops divide. It's pop. Also the boy looks too much like a girl for the comfort of heavy duty America.
Runnin' Down a Dream tells the Heartbreakers' story in fantastic detail and at considerable (nearly four hours) length. Even if you're not a committed fan, though, this just rushes by. Brilliantly directed by none other than Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show and much else) this seems to me better than Scorsese's music documentaries, perhaps because everyone involved is so (apparently) open and direct. And it's a great story: A band, a proper band, together, mostly, for 30-odd years. Great humour, immense success, terrible tragedy. Fascinating, articulate characters. Plus there's been access to home movies and personal archives that just takes you straight to the heart of the band's origins in Gainesville, Florida.
But Bogdanovich's insight makes this much more than a fanfest. This is the story of not just one band, but of rock'n'roll as a band endeavour. It has innocence, immediate and massive success, betrayal, corruption, drugs galore, death, sex (but a curious discretion too in that area) and a fascinating glimpse of what true commitment to music really means. What impresses, and at times horrifies, is Petty's formidable determination and drive. Not to say ruthlessness. He takes on everyone - record companies, producers, drummers (sacking Stan Lynch after 20 years)and in one unbelievable scene, two dodgy A&R men who want Roger McGuinn to record a 'commercial' song.
This is a film I'd show to anyone who wanted to know what it means to be in a band, and especially to be the leader of a band. By the end, Petty's looking like an older southern gent, his girlish good looks faded and wrinkled. But the power of the band and his songs, as illustrated in a triumphant return to Gainesville for a gig, remains undimmed.
Runnin' Down a Dream comes in the form of four discs, two with the documentary, one with the full Gainesville concert, and a CD with some interesting tunes from the film. A great Christmas present. And the best thing Mr Bogdanovich has done since...his stint on The Sopranos.