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Running Down a Dream (DVD)
Artist: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Length: 4 DVDs
This is one of the best rockumentaries I have ever seen. It is brilliantly done by renowned film maker Peter Bogdanovich; to make a film about a band that lasts for four hours and keep people gripped the entire time is quite an achievement. That Petty's story is so full of drama helped. The genesis of any band is always fascinating but when things get up and running in the Heartbreakers story there is simply drama after drama. A lawsuit that threatened the career entirely at the time of Damn The Torpedoes gives way to Petty's mother dying. His house gets burned down by an arsonist and then he gets caught in London's biggest storms in centuries. The bass player dies of drug abuse and there are various relational sagas that can only be expected over a thirty year career. Everyone in the band gets their voice and it is frank, honest but ultimately gracious like the family ethos Petty has always tried to nurture.
Then there are the collaborations and celebrity endorsements. Dave Grohl and Johnny Depp wax lyrical and Eddie Vedder can't believe he gets to play with his hero. Stevie Nicks wanted to leave Fleetwood Mac at their peak to become a Heartbreaker but is told incredulously that "there are no girls in the Heartbreakers." These guys were Bob Dylan's band for a couple of years in the mid-eighties! Then they were Johnny Cash's band for the recording of Unchained, one of his critically acclaimed American Recordings series. Petty has produced an album for Del Shannon and co-written with Roy Orbison, Roger McGuinn, Dave Stewart and Jeff Lynne. He rightfully claims to have reinvented the rock video with "You Got Lucky"'s little storyboard. To top it all off he gets to be a band member with Beatle George and Bob Dylan along with aforementioned Orbison and Lynne in the super group of super groups, The Travelling Wilburys. It is so gripping that four hours seems like 90 minutes and you are sorry when you get up to date.
I am not sure how a film maker monitors the success of such a project but Bogdanovish has caused me to re-evaluate Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers place in rock history and that must be some sign of success. Petty and the Heartbreakers have been commercially more successful in America than in the UK, though the film rightfully acknowledges that the UK took to him first, so he hasn't always been in my face though he has always been in my record collection. Around Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) I lost the adrenaline rush. Even though I kept buying the albums right up to last summer's Highway Companion I did not take Petty too seriously. He was like a team that competed in the premier division but never challenged for the title.
Running Down a Dream caused me to repent. As I replayed his extensive back catalogue that I hadn't heard for years and gave a closer ear to the most recent I discovered a songwriter of high quality, rockin' it with the best of them and also challenging the status quo both inside and outside the music industry. The documentary covers his court case with MCA over publishing deals at the end of the seventies and then a few years later when he stood his ground over them trying to hike the price of records on the back of Hard Promises. In 2002 his Last DJ album was edgy social commentary on how profit as the bottom line was killing the music industry and seriously damaging our spiritual health in general. One of his most famous songs "I Won't Back Down" sums him up well. And those Heartbreakers, well, they are all astounding players with particular mention of Mike Campbell as a top guitarist and Benmont Tench is a much sought after piano player. In the film they all recognize the sheer luck or divine providence in these players appearing in each other's lives and seem to genuinely be pinching themselves that it has lasted so long.
As well as the four hour documentary the box set includes a thirtieth anniversary concert in his home town of Gainesville, Florida, and a nine track CD of rare and live songs used on the soundtrack of the documentary. For the Belfast listener like me it takes a crazy twist at the end of both the film and concert where Petty covers Van Morrison's song "Mystic Eyes," released when Morrison was frontman for Them; Southern Accented Florida boy sings the northern Irish blues! When Petty sings "I remember us walking down University Avenue" it is simply freaky and wonderful. This is a few streets from where I am, this is the University where I work, Queens University Belfast and it has a place in the history of rock 'n' roll.
But then it goes further. In the middle of the song Petty is bringing his gig to its hyped climax and he holds the band back and the crowd in the palm of his hand…"I thought to myself, wouldn't be great, wouldn't it be great if for one moment everything was alright… if for just one moment in time everything was alright…" It was one of those moments when the purposes of rock 'n' roll are laid out, literally in a mystic moment. When people speak of rock 'n' roll as rebellion it is rebellion with this aim. It is people, for whatever reason, shackled in some kind of oppressive captivity - literally, socially, politically, economically, spiritually – trying to break free; trying to reach a moment of peace and redemption. For sure there have been misguided rebels in the rock 'n' roll cause but Petty ain't one of them.
Petty speaks in the film of those who get possessed with the Lord and go out preaching and how he got possessed by rock 'n' roll and how if the sailor doesn't go back to sea he'll always wonder what if… Petty is a man who is lives in the vortex of his vocation. He is "running down the dream/working on a mystery/going where ever it leads." The prayers prayed in his Southern accent when he was growing up still swirl around his work. There is a desire for spirituality in love, music and life and many of songs are good highway companions as we travel seeking that one moment when everything will be alright. The film ends with Eddie Vedder and Petty whispering to him at the curtain call of a gig. Petty says, "Look at that Eddie, rock 'n' roll heaven." Vedder replies, "Yeh… here on earth" and Petty nails it: "Exactly!"
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian
Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community
with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey
of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering
Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and
he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or
night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms
of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org . He also tries to spend some time
with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.