I grew up with Full Moon Fever. Songs like “Freefallin’”, “I Won’t Back Down”, “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, and “Yer So Bad” could easily be the sound track to my coming of age in rural Florida. I came from a town too small to have a theater, an arcade, or population of girls that hadn’t already told me to get lost, so I did most of my running around twenty-four miles away in the “big city” of Gainesville, home of the Gators, the University, a good number of unfortunate Volvos, and another awkward country boy named Tom Petty. I didn’t like the Gators, but I took a strange pride in being from the same backwoods that gave rise to a rock and roll icon and his Heartbreakers.
My memories of MTV’s heyday (you know the next line), back when it still played music, are indelibly marked with the image of Tom Petty dressed as the mad hatter, sipping his tea and singing, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Even before that, mixed in with memories of “Photograph”, and “Electric Avenue”, and “Dancing with Myself”, is the scene of a bunch of cool looking guys climbing out of some kind of future car in the desert and stumbling onto a tent full of TVs to sing “You Got Lucky”. I was amazed that those guys, looking so tough with their boots and their leather, cigarettes dangling, huge pilot-style sunglasses flashing in desert heat were somehow led by the goofy one with the overbite and the weird voice. The one from Gainesville, just down the road from me. Maybe anything is possible.
For those of us that grew up on his songs and, better yet, for those that don’t realize just how far-reaching and influential his body of work is, Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream is a treasure on film. Put together with a wealth of footage from the earliest days of Mudcrutch and The Epics, the entire history of the band is miraculously documented. I was giddy to see footage of the bar where the band played its first paying gigs, a place called Dubbs that I used to use my fake ID to get into in order to see the likes of Warrant or Quiet Riot.
Throughout the four hour running time, the film is never less than fascinating. It chronicles such things as Petty’s bankruptcy and landmark legal battles with the music industry and his friendships with legends like Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Ringo Star, and Roy Orbison, there’s even an attempted assassination. It’s hard not to root for Tom, the underdog, while you watch him growing as an artist and see the record company trying to take his songs away from him. When he’s victorious, we share in his victory and we get to see how that affects his growth and his writing and his relationships. Petty’s story is sprawling and iconic and the film reflects that.
Bogdanovich captures insight into Petty’s creative process as a writer, a recording artist, and a performer that any student of music or the arts should appreciate. It’s good stuff. Particularly interesting is how the viewer is able, over the course of the film, to see and hear the thirty-year metamorphosis of his work as it changes from the perspective of a teenager to that of a grown man, filled with experience, heartache and the scars and lessons of life.
Fueled by a fantastic American narrative, tons of rarely seen live performances, interviews with sources ranging from Johnny Depp to Jackson Browne, and, most of all, by Tom Petty’s own unique impact on rock and roll, Runnin’ On A Dream is documentary film-making at its peak. It reminds us that great things can come from small places, even from the town down the road, even from the kid with the overbite. It reminds us that, indeed, anything is possible.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.