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not simply for Tom Petty fans- anyone who's ever been in a band will relate to it, the nature of rock n roll
Tom Petty is one of those 'institutions' if one could call it in rock and roll, though maybe that's too harsh a word to put on a man like Petty, who looks about as relaxed and laid back as a multi-millionaire rock star could get. Beneath a cool veneer lays a bit of harsh anger that really only comes out through his music (from time to time, re: early in career), and he and the Heartbreakers have crafted some of the most indelible, simple-but-complex rock songs of the past thirty years. And Peter Bogdanovich does just about his own version of Scorsese's No Direction Home: a portrait of the artist under the circumstances of those around him.
Where Dylan (who is also featured in Running Down a Dream) had his story unfold as being praised/victimized by the audience and by critics, and his own inward and testy personality a part of his genius, Petty's story is much more related to the band and the nature of working with a group that is so tight and run so well that there is never any kind of break-up. We see how Mudcrutch- Petty's original Gainsville, Florida band- broke-up and soon after the Heartbreakers formed, and a sort of bond that grew not really out of anything overt except that a bunch of musicians who were good at what they could do recognized it in one another, and were friends otherwise because they enjoyed what they do. Sounds a little pat, but as it unfolds Boganovich gets into the mindset of the Heartbreakers, how it's not just about Tom and his songwriting (which is rather incredible at times), but what the other contribute, or don't as case may be.
And it's also a great tour of rock and roll history, as if Petty went through the folds of the second half of the 20th century as if the real all-American kind of kid went along through adulthood. First met Elvis, listened to his records non-stop for years, then heard the Beatles and started a band, got into the hippie scene with his band, then went out more ambitiously into LA and got a record deal right away, became part of a music scene that was all his own amid a 'New Wave' that started in the late 70s into the early 80s, then MTV, heavy drugs, rehab with old friends (Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynn), superstar again with Full Moon Fever, and a kind of semi-comfortable semi-tense period in the 90s broken by divorce and a realization that America was going down a bad path of corporate and governmental control. Bogdanovich and his editors have done a masterful job of combining the footage of rarity (studio sets, rare concerts, European TV, personal photos and such) and pop kind (those music videos are some of the most entertaining).
If there is something of a letdown it's maybe only subjective: a few of the performances from Gainsville filmed in 2006 (or 2007 I couldn't tell) didn't seem to have to same energy and pizazz of Petty at his best, with the film's title song being the biggest exception. One song in particular, forgetting the name, where Petty scats through most of it also sounds a little 'off'. But one must give credit where credit is always due: for a man like Petty, who could've retired years ago when the greatest hits were released and Last Dance with Mary Jane, a classic from 90s rock that is right up there with the best of Pearl Jam and STP as solid, standard alternative rock, to still be on the road is something inspirational. Just seeing little bits and pieces of how he works creatively, how it 'comes to him' without much effort, and how if there is a lot of effort it's almost a waste of time- and seeing the equal contributions of the band like the keyboardist and Mike the guitarist- are enough to make me want to rush out to get some of their lesser known, interesting albums.
Bottom line, the best rock doc you're likely to see this year, least about a band with the longevity of the Heartbreakers.
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