Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream


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.


  1. Tony Heringer


    “Hard Promises” was my favorite Tom Petty album in college and is still one of my favorites of all time. His writing has always resonated with me too. I look forward to catching this “rock-umentary” at some point thanks for the review. I’m sure Tom is a favorite of many in the Room.

    Happy New Year!

  2. s.d. smith

    Where else could I feel so at home but in a place where Tom Petty is discussed along with a virtual Advent wreath along with the rest of what issues from the eclectic maw of the Rabbit Room.

    Thanks, Pete. Keep “workin’ on a mystery.”

  3. Janey

    Watched the documentary yesterday and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.
    I’ve always loved his work. His music is real American rock and it reaches my soul, or just plain makes me laugh (Hey Spike).
    I was particurlarly impressed to see his dedication to his craft and his ability to self-discipline when needed. Thank God he nixed Nix!
    He was born to write and sing and I hope he will do so til my dying day and beyond.
    Goofy looking..Hardly!

  4. Andrew Peterson


    One of my favorite parts of this film was the story about the band’s first lead singer. Tom was just an electric guitar player (or was it bass?) in the original band, till one day he called a secret meeting with the rest of the band and told them that he wanted to be the lead singer. They agreed and fired the poor guy. But instead of being mad or hurt he said, “Well, do you guys mind if I stay on as the lighting guy or something at least?” They said yes, and now 30 years or so later, he’s still the lighting guy.

    I may have some of the facts skewed, but that’s the gist of it. It was heartwarming to see the humility of the now-lighting guy, who was fine to step down as front man as long as he could still hang with his friends and be a part of what was happening.

    Of course, like Pete, it was also fun for me to see that Tom and his buddies grew up pretty much exactly like we did, and just a few miles down the road. When I was a kid, my dad drove to Gainesville a few times a week to visit members of our church who were in the hospital. While he did his pastorly duties he would drop me off either at the local comic shop, the surf/skateboard shop, or at this place called Lipham’s Music where I’d find a baby grand in the corner and play through every Journey song I knew until the manager asked me to leave. (And sometimes he did.)

    Little did I realize at the time that Tom used to haunt the same store. Had I known, I would have imagined the music store manager singing “Don’t Come Around Here No More” while I slunk away.

    By the way, on Jason Gray’s new CD Acoustic Storytime, he does a fine cover of “I Won’t Back Down”. Which, come to think of it, would’ve been a good song to sing back at the mean manager.

  5. Dan White

    I saw the beginning this documentary last Thursday as I relaxed on my bro.-in-law’s couch and found myself glued to the television from the title scene till 2hrs. later when my wife jarred me from this journey with Tom and his cohorts and said, “come on guys let’s play a game.” 30 minutes later my bro.-in-law (who had now joined me on this journey) and I forced ourselves to turn off the TV and engage real life again. We couldn’t subdue this desire to act out our rock-n-roll fantasies, so we convinced the girls that it would be a good idea to play ROCKBAND.
    I became a Tom Petty fan in 1998 when I sat down with his Greatest Hits album and tried to do some homework. I got it right away–the top hat and crazy eyes were just side shows; the music was pure American rock-n-roll.

  6. leolabeth

    After admitting a Petty obsession kindled by Bogdanovich’s documentary on my own blog, I tripped over your good words while wondering whether other bloggers had been similarly struck. Thank-you for the sharp views.

    I had the good fortune to see this film last year, but didn’t have the leisure to DVR it and obsess about it until it made the recent round on Sundance.

    Thanks also for the A.J. Jacobs recommendation. This is why I love the Internets.

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