There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
Last July, in this very column, Andrew Winistorfer proclaimed The History of the Eagles to be “not only the best music documentary I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the truest and the realest.” That film memorably clocked in at just over three hours. By a loose application of the transitive property, does Runnin' Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich’s four hour deep dive into Tom Petty’s career, have the potential to be even twenty five percent better than that? Actually, it does! I will be the first person to tell you that four hours is a long time to sit down and watch a movie about anything, much less a guy who was one fifth of the Traveling Wilburys, but hot damn by the time the credits roll you will be shocked at how fascinating, full, and admittedly faded Petty’s story turns out to be.
I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that, even with a handful of multi-platinum albums under his belt, Petty’s genius as a songwriter and bandleader is still somehow criminally underrated. After watching this film, I think the reason is simply because he’s just so chill. The film is long, yes, but that runtime ends up being nothing more than a quantifiable metric of just how laid back Petty is. He’s a southern boy after all, a natural born raconteur, with over four decades of crazy music industry stories that all need time and space to expand and grow, and damned if he’s gonna let himself be rushed through it.
One thing that compelling narratives need is dramatic tension, but somehow Runnin' Down a Dream manages to hold your attention despite having hardly any of that. At no point does Petty come off as struggling in any way, almost frustratingly so. From the very beginning, his first band is made up of the first bunch of dudes he more or less randomly stumbles onto in Gainesville, Florida. After unsolicited walking their demos into every label in LA, they have multiple record contract offers. It’s more or less just one upward stumble after another straight on to the present day. The few hiccups there are in his career seem relatively minor and stress-free. For instance, after being fired, the Heartbreakers’ long time drummer basically says, “Yeah, it was about time I guess,” like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world. Even the early squabbles with their record label get smoothed over with relative ease.
Tom Petty is a “that guy,” the kind of unflappably cool dude who can not only charm himself into any situation, but once he’s there he’s also got the raw talent to make it work and the warmth of personality where you never feel jealous of his success. When talking about his songwriting process, he casually says "I don't understand it, but the best ones just... appear," and you easily believe that for him it really just is that easy. Without seeming to push himself at all, Petty manages to not only create music that feels right at home in some sweet spot between punk, new wave, country, and power pop, but the real magic trick so far as I can see is that it all feels uniquely his.
The one glaring criticism I could level against Runnin' Down a Dream is that, despite its vast breadth of coverage, there are moments that feel comparatively shallow in their depth. This is most notable with regards to Petty’s personal life. When talking about how someone tragically burned down his home in 1987 he casually mentions his daughter for the very first time and then they cut to an interview with her as if they’ve mentioned her a dozen times before. Likewise, his second wife is brought up towards the end of the movie and even though she’s presented as a having been a lifesaver for him at that time in his life, I can’t think of a single instance where his first wife is talked about directly. Not that we need to know all the ins and outs of his family life, but when you dip in and out like that, cherry picking the bits you want to include, it creates a disjointed effect.
Some music documentaries seek to further affirm the greatness of their already famous subjects, while others repackage obscure artists. With Runnin' Down a Dream, the effect on me was to discover something really valuable that was hidden in plain sight. Petty’s music was, and remains, a kind of aural wallpaper for the American Experience. It’s catchy, and resonant, and built to last, but it’s never flashy, because Petty is just a chill dude who can’t help but make great music and that’s enough for him. If the Eagles documentary proved that they were the most brutally successful, Runnin' Down a Dream proves that Tom Petty is brutally brilliant and gives zero fucks about how successful he is.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.