Movie opens exactly how I would’ve opened a Tom Petty movie, with a concert performance of “You Wreck Me”. And this is a four-hour movie, a four-HOUR movie, so I thought we’d have some breathing room and could afford the four minutes to hear the whole song uncut, set the stage for your epic Tom Petty documentary by letting us hear a whole Tom Petty song, just so we know what exactly we’re celebrating here. But P.Bog goes the obvious talking-heads documentary route instead, cutting into the song so people like Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks, Dave Grohl and Johnny Depp can tell us that they love Tom Petty and his music so much. Damn, almost had something there. I guess P.Bog doesn’t want people tuning in and thinking it’s gonna be a straight-up concert, but still, I hope in the next four hours he finds time to play one song, just one song all the way through without voiceover. Can you celebrate a musician without actually playing any of his songs?
We may not get to hear a song uninterrupted, but we can enjoy watching Johnny Depp talk without any bothersome on-screen text saying “Johnny Depp”. But I didn’t recognize half the people who spoke, so if he doesn’t eventually start with the text, I’ll just never know.
But look at me complain. It’s an enjoyable show so far, talking ’bout Petty’s early obsession with rock music and his meeting Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and early days in Mudcrutch. All songs I’ve heard before from the box set with nice home-movie footage to go with it.
Tom drives to L.A. to find a record deal, gets a few of those, Mudcrutch breaks up because the studio wants Tom more than the rest of the band, and the Heartbreakers are quickly formed to replace it. Their record producer wrongly assumes that they mean the name Heartbreakers ironically. Tom is shot in arty black-and-white.
First two Heartbreakers albums are out. There was all of one sentence about the second album being more difficult than the first before they cut to people raving about it. Some good live footage, some talk about drug use. And finally, one entire TV performance of a song with no cuts or voiceovers. Hoorah! A “required monthly test” on my tape cut out one talky segment. The band was initially popular in Britain before they caught on in the U.S.. Someone’s trying to convince us that Tom Petty was part of the Talking Heads/Sex Pistols rebel new-wave/punk movement, since the Heartbreakers’ roots-rock was out of fashion on the radio, replaced by bloated dinosaur rock and disco. I guess it’s a workable theory but I want to hear David Byrne’s opinion first.
Third album was a big deal. Jimmy Iovine shows up and tells us that third albums are always big deals. Petty found out he was being dicked around by his record company and he sued them… big unprecendented event, led to settlement giving Tom more control and royalties from his music and the eventual release of “Damn The Torpedoes,” feat Refugee, Even The Losers and Don’t Do Me Like That. Movie plays nearly the whole album over the story.
Some pressure for the fourth album, “Hard Promises”, another great one, feat. Insider and A Woman In Love. Very nice segment on The Waiting that starts with Petty singing it acoustic, cuts into music video / studio version, then after an interview piece closes out the song with Eddie Vedder on vocals during a live performance. We lost a bass player (no hard feelings), gained a new one (Howie Epstein), won another fight with the record company (over album pricing), dealt with Stevie Nicks, and played the great Stop Dragging My Heart Around. First time diving into Tom’s angry youth, his abusive father (plenty of hard feelings) and sweet mother who died during the recording of this album after long illness. Iovine presents his theory: missing mother + abusive father = rock star. Towards the end of 1982 I drove back to work blasting Insider with the windows open. Man, it’s only 1982… how long can P.Bog keep this up? Did he ever watch the whole thing at once?
Next album “Long After Dark” (the one with “You Got Lucky”) isn’t as good as it might’ve been. Producer Jimmy Iovine is blamed for his involvement. Next album “Southern Accents” (feat. Eurythmics-penned “Don’t Come Around Here No More”) isn’t as good as it might’ve been. Producer Jimmy Iovine is blamed for his lack of involvement. We get a full pretty-recent concert performance of the song “Southern Accents”, and a brief description of the drug-fueled two year period around the Accents album leading to Tom’s smashing his left hand into a wall. P.Bog uses an innovative cutting style during this segment, and intimate camera work reminiscent of his film “Texasville”. Haaaa I’m just kidding, it’s the same ol’ interview stuff. I turned it off after a black screen announcing the end of part one. I hope part two is on my videotape!
The album: “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” feat. Bob-Dylan-co-penned “Jammin’ Me”. Here in part two, Petty’s rock cred and history firmly established, we take an immediate P.Bog-style veer towards talking about all Tom’s Famous Friends. Tom and his group back up Dylan (who hadn’t played with a band since The Band), hang out with ex-Beatles and Jeff Lynne and Otis Redding and finally form the Traveling Wilburys, marking the point when Tom went from rebel-rocker to a guy whose records my mom would buy. I haven’t seen The Last Waltz but mentions of The Band got me wondering if this is P.Bog’s answer to that movie, a big rock statement blending his two main talents of reminiscing about the old days and namechecking famous friends. Oh but I shouldn’t be mean to P.Bog, don’t really know much about him.
Wilburys record comes out and is a huge hit, then Roy Orbison dies so that doesn’t go any further. Tom alienates the band by making a solo-ish record in “Full Moon Fever,” but it’s the biggest hit of his career and the Heartbreakers play the songs live and they don’t seem so bitter anymore.
Tom continues to alienate the band, this time with the help of Jeff Lynne, “Into The Great Wide Open” producer who likes to record the band members one at a time instead of all together like they are used to doing. New drummer joins during “Wildflower” sessions and is asked to stay permanently when old drummer finally quits. They hang out with Roger McGuinn, Johnny Depp, Dave Grohl, Faye Dunaway. “Greatest Hits” sells ten million copies after Tom is finished grumbling about it. The band gets a little happier. I’m starting to be thankful that the movie is so long. It’s been nine lunch hours so far I’ve gotten to hang out and listen to Tom Petty stories, and I always feel like playing some Petty albums when I get back to work.
I didn’t think I’d end up criticizing a four-hour doc for its omissions, but when it acts like it’s telling the whole story, those omissions seem serious enough to mention. Firstly, they didn’t mention the Petty/Heartbreakers soundtrack to She’s The One. I can see not wanting to spend a lot of time on it, but they could at least mention it in passing… it’s a great album. More importantly, Tom’s cameo as the mayor of Bridge City in the post-apocalyptic epic The Postman went unmentioned. “I heard of you, man… YOU’RE famous.” On the bright side, the band is back together. On the less bright side, nobody seems totally happy with “Echo”, least of all Tom, who was going through a divorce at the time of recording. Back up with a new wife and a hall of fame induction for “The Last DJ”, currently the Heartbreakers’ most recent album and a very good one. And then back down again as bassist Howie Epstein dies from drugs and is replaced in the band by original bassist Ron Blair. Oh, and the band backed up Johnny Cash on “American Recordings”, something else to be proud of.
Oh augh, the summary chapter. Would that the VCR chewed up my tape sometime between last time and this one. Tom is proud of “Highway Companion” but has nothing new to say about it. There’s some more concert and video footage, but mostly this is where we throw all the clips of people saying nice things about each other to leave us feeling good about ourselves and Tom and rock ‘n roll. Might work better if you’ve been spacing on the movie for four hours and gone through a couple six packs, but as a standalone episode it’s tedious. So I’ll keep my last words to a minimum: good flick, good tunes.