If you were going to pick a band that would seem like a perfect fit for the MTV generation, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be far down on the list. In a visual medium, Tom Petty's long hair and angular looks seemed more suited something you'd see on a local car mechanic who spent all day reminiscing about that time in college when he had a rock band.
And yet, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ended up being one of the biggest bands of the 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to a long string of incessantly hook-filled songs and a Byrds-inspired sound that always seemed distinctive and pure. When you heard a Tom Petty song for the first time, it sounded both fresh and yet timeless. Just another classic track from a band that was everywhere in pop culture during the height of the MTV Video age.
But that's just part of the story chronicled in the sprawling 2007 documentary "Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream," which is currently available on Netflix. Put together by the famed director Peter Bogdanvich, the film interweaves tons of vintage footage, interviews and then current stories from Tom Petty and the rest of the band into an extensive recounting of the band's ups-and-downs.
And with a runtime of nearly four hours, I'm not kidding when I say it's extensive. It takes an hour to get to the point of the story where the band breaks big in the U.S. thanks to the song "American Girl." That might seem a bit much for anyone who's not a Tom Petty superfan, but it's a reflection of Bogdanovich's talent that the four hours fly by when you're watching. For all of the career highs, there are also as many personal challenges and the film covers all of them in sometimes painful detail.
Petty could be a cantankerous guy when he felt he was being wronged and there's something fitting about the fact an extended battle with his music label almost meant his career-topping third album "Damn The Torpedos" could have easily never been released. At one point, Petty has someone taking the tapes of the album's sessions and hiding them every night so the music label can't seize them. It's a crazy story, but one that also epitomizes the drive and anger that sometimes drove Petty.
As it turns out, the extended focus on the early years of the band, especially an early attempt at success under the name "Mudcrutch" pays off unexpectedly, given what happened with Petty's career after this film was made. After Mudcrutch broke up, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell stayed on and became the foundation of the Heartbreakers. But apparently Petty had always regretted having to let go original Mudcrutch band members Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon. So in 2007, Petty reformed Mudcrutch and released an album. He briefly toured with the band and they later released a second album in 2016.
And then there's the fact that while more recent Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums didn't get a lot of radio airplay, they sold well. In fact, the band's 2014 release "Hypnotic Eye" was their first album to ever open at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. It's an interesting twist to the story and it's too bad there isn't an updated version of the documentary available now that he has died.
Still, "Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream" is an excellent look at one of the great American rock singers and bands. It's easy to forget just how many hits they had over the years and how important their sound was to the fabric of popular music. As someone notes in the documentary, "You can hear them play for two-and-a-half hours and you'll know every song."