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Runnin' on Empty: Lots of Details, Little Meaning in Tom Petty Documentary

Peter Bogdanovich takes four hours but reveals little of significance about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the documentary airing tonight at 7 on the Sundance Channel.
Peter Bogdanovich takes four hours but reveals little of significance about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the documentary airing tonight at 7 on the Sundance Channel. (By Neal Preston -- Warner Bros. Records)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

Nearly an hour into the interminable music documentary "Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," Petty himself recalls that rock-and-roll circa 1976 had become bloated. There were too many seven-minute songs, he says. Such a piggish display of excess and self-indulgence!

Petty et al. favored brevity. Their breakout single, "Breakdown"? Two minutes, 42 seconds. "American Girl"? Three minutes, 33 seconds. "Refugee"? Three and change.

"We have a slogan," Mike Campbell, the band's superlative guitar slinger, tells the camera. "Don't bore us -- get to the chorus."

Peter Bogdanovich, are you listening?

In crafting a filmic valentine to Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bogdanovich seems to have gotten lost on his way to the chorus: Either forgetting or ignoring one of his subject's guiding artistic principles (keep it concise, maaaan), the director has turned "Runnin' Down a Dream" into an ultra-marathon.

It's an endurance race, an unending run toward editorial excess, during which Bogdanovich's editing instincts have cramped up or become blistered.

Bogdanovich's documentary clocks in at just under four hours. All that time, and you're still left wondering what makes Petty tick: There's a whole lot of what here -- so many details and snatches of archival footage and interesting if tangential anecdotes -- with far too little time spent on why or how. ( More revealing is Paul Zollo's 2005 book, "Conversations With Tom Petty.")

Bogdanovich doesn't get very far behind the music, offering only brief glimpses into Petty's soul. It's not enough -- particularly given that he's asking for four hours.

And Petty simply does not warrant that much viewing time. He's a terrific talent who has written some great songs, has a very good band and has been somewhat underrated throughout his career. But he's not culturally significant in the way that, say, Elvis Presley or the Beatles are. He's not endlessly fascinating or deeply mysterious, a la Bob Dylan; Petty is no four-hour brain teaser -- even if he seems to have stumped Bogdanovich, who never really manages to get him to talk about the source of his songs and their deeper meaning.

There is much discussion about the recording process during the making of the masterly 1979 album "Damn the Torpedoes," for instance -- but very little attention given to the songs themselves. Where did they come from? What were Petty's motives and inspirations? The guitarist Campbell says he thought the tunes "were going to be timeless; we just had a feeling these were really powerful songs."

But Petty himself doesn't offer any elucidation. "It's so hard to understand," he says of the artistic process. "I don't really understand it. It seems that the best ones often just appear. . . . I hesitate to even try to understand it for fear that it might make it go away. It's a spiritual thing."

Other people try to explain what makes Petty's best songs so great. Jimmy Iovine, who produced "Damn the Torpedoes," says there's a poetic quality to Petty's lyrics. "It's a guy in pain -- but it's very romantic." Music journalists mention the innocence and simplicity of the lyrics, but also the anguish.

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