At a massive 253 minutes, Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers certainly doesn’t lack for detail, recounting via standard nonfiction means (interviews, photos, home movies, music videos, and tons of classic and obscure album cuts) the entirety of the iconic rocker’s career. Bogdanovich employs a warm and leisurely, though never sluggish, pace that’s upfront about the director’s intention to take his sweet time tackling every topic of relevant interest. And as it turns out, there are plenty to tackle, with this admiring but far from sycophantic tribute—set to be released on DVD shortly after a one-night theatrical run—meticulously laying out Petty’s three-decade professional saga: his tough childhood and hippie-rocker teenage years in Gainesville, Florida, his early success in Los Angeles, his momentous legal battles with record labels, his ascension to superstardom with 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, his subsequent tour with Bob Dylan and participation in The Traveling Wilburys, and his abiding bond—30 years and a couple of major line-up changes later—with his constant companions, the Heartbreakers.
Organized around new interviews with Petty (the de facto narrator), the Heartbreakers, and a handful of collaborators and/or admirers (Eddie Vedder, Dave Stewart, Stevie Nicks, and Dave Grohl, among others), the film’s bread and butter is nonetheless material from the vault. Displaying a deft touch with collage and juxtaposition, Bogdanovich paints a thorough and infinitely watchable portrait whose chronological structure is craftily broken up into mini-narratives, and which addresses some of Petty’s dominant characteristics—like his famous rebellious streak—not with ham-fisted emphasis but by allowing them to naturally rise to the surface amid countless touring anecdotes and discussions of in-studio drama. Petty’s creative openness and generosity, and the sense that the Heartbreakers are a legitimately close family unit, are both points gradually addressed during Runnin’ Down a Dream. And thanks to the director’s refusal to delve into his subject’s private life save for when it inextricably intersects with his career, the film—candid about its desire to venerate rather than even-handedly critique—maintains throughout an unwavering, primary focus on the most compelling aspect of Petty: his music.
Legendary producer Rick Rubin (who worked on 1994’s superlative Wildflowers) rightly exclaims that the number of enduring hits written by Petty is “mind-boggling.” Bogdanovich’s liberal use of these radio staples makes a convincing case for the singer-songwriter as a distinctly American artist, his guitar-driven tunes not only timeless ruminations on big themes (love, loss, regret, etc.) but also, in their effortless mixture of blues, country, and pop, the near-epitome of what domestic rock n’ roll sounds like. Meanwhile, Petty, through a series of simultaneously jovial and frank reflections on his past, comes across as thoughtful and inherently likeable, and even more than that, as the type of musician all-too-rarely found these days: one wholly dedicated to both his craft and his principles, regardless of the personal or commercial ramifications. Virtually everything a fan could want from a cinematic biography can be found in Runnin’ Down a Dream, save for any mention of his above-average original soundtrack for 1996’s rom com She’s the One. And given Bogdanovich’s otherwise remarkable thoroughness, that omission ultimately seems less an example of forgetfulness than merely a shrewd attempt to not spoil the overarching positive vibe with references to Ed Burns.