Free-falling through 30 years of continuous musical reinvention and 145 songs, Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour docu on Tom Petty goes down as smoothly as well-aged whiskey. Rather than fashioning a standard-issue, VH1-type rise-and-fall-and-rise-again biodoc, Bogdanovich includes little material that does not relate, directly or indirectly, to the evolution of the music. Result is a feast for Petty fans and a joyous confirmation of the vitality of the collective creative process. Following its New York Film Festival debut, the pic opened Oct. 15 as a one-night-only theatrical event Stateside, with DVD rollout and Oct. 29 Sundance Channel airing to follow.
Petty’s personal archives supplied an extraordinary wealth of footage, allowing the pic to visually trace Petty’s beginnings — from age 11, when he met Elvis onset in Gainesville for “Follow That Dream,” to his formation of a popular high school band, the Sundowners. This gave birth to the Epics, whose “corny” name was changed to the enigmatic Mudcrutch. Petty’s adoration of cowboys and cowboy movies even allows Bogdanovich to slip in a clip from “Rio Bravo,” wherein Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin croon “Get Along Home Cindy.”
Homemovies (shot on 8mm) of band members fooling around in Gainesville are scored to newly remixed cuts of unreleased Mudcrutch numbers. Copious scenes of the jubilant Heartbreakers on their first European trip (their 1976 debut album, overlooked at home, enjoyed huge popularity in England) include an appearance on the BBC rock show “Old Grey Whistle Test,” where they perform “Fooled Again.”
The Heartbreakers’ early formation and its members’ individual contributions are recounted by those who stayed, those who joined and those who left. The convoluted politics that took over once the band left Gainesville makes for improbably fascinating watching, due largely to savvy editing.
Editing scheme somewhat glosses over Petty’s momentary, label-dictated abandonment of the band, playing up his later heroic stand against the industry (Petty successfully fought to regain control of his music and subsequently prevented the record company from using his popularity to raise the retail price of LPs). Bogdanovich’s tendency toward hero worship, and the fact that the docu was commissioned by Petty, may have something to do with the choice. But since Petty’s desertion was momentary and his ultimate struggle impacted the music biz for years, Bogdanovich’s interpretation is finally history’s.
Pic does full justice to Petty’s collaborations with established artists he admired, showing him and the Heartbreakers touring for two years as Bob Dylan’s band; his participation in the Traveling Wilburys along with Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison; and his work with Johnny Cash. The video of his 1981 duet with Stevie Nicks, of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is preceded by talks with Nicks in which she describes trying to leave Fleetwood Mac to join the Heartbreakers, only to be told, “But you’re a woman!”
Interviews with the likes of Jackson Browne, Johnny Depp (who appeared in the video for “Into the Great Wide Open”), George Harrison (shortly before his death), Eddie Vedder, Roger McGuinn, Jeff Lynne and Dave Stewart are cannily interspersed throughout, along with selected snippets with Petty himself, whose wry commentary proves highly entertaining.
In Petty, Bogdanovich found the musical equivalent of a classical metteur-en-scene, a literal auteur — widely acknowledged as a great songwriter, whose orchestration of his songs is dependent on the input of others yet reflective of his own vision.
Pic feels half its length, dragging a bit only in the final quarter-hour, when Bogdanovich finds it necessary to again sum up Petty’s importance.
Tech credits, particularly sound, are uniformly excellent.