Top: Steven J. Ross Theater marquis

Middle: Tom Petty on the red carpet before the premier, talking with the press

Bottom: Tom Petty with Peter Bogdanovich on the red carpet prior to the screening

Photos: James Swinson

Backstage Pass: Runnin' Down a Dream World Premier
By Tania Fardella
Burbank CA, October 2, 2007
This story was originally intended to appear in Music Scene, a small independent San Francisco Bay Area entertainment newspaper which unfortunately ceased operations shortly prior to publication.

“Some people get possessed by the lord and have to
go out and preach sermons the rest of their lives.
We were possessed by rock and roll and had to go out and play gigs.
I mean, you can quit, but it’s kind of like the sailor and the sea.
If he never goes back, he’s going to think about it forever.”

Tom Petty

On a warm early October evening at the Warner Brothers studio lot in Burbank, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrated the world premier of “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” the epic documentary by legendary director Peter Bogdanovich, chronicling the band’s extraordinary story from their humble beginnings in the small town of Gainesville, Florida, to their evolution into one of the most popular, respected, and universally celebrated groups of our time. As a lifelong fan, it was my extreme honor and privilege to attend the premier, to meet Tom Petty himself, and to witness a once-in-a-lifetime moment in musical history.

The Steven J. Ross Theater was studded with collaborators and friends from the band’s past and present, including Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne, Dave Stewart, Jackson Browne (who first met and worked with Petty at the “No Nukes” benefit concert in 1979), comedian Garry Shandling, actress Cybill Shepherd, and Natalie Maines & Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks.

Prior to the screening, Bogdanovich (best known for the 1971 film “The Last Picture Show”) addressed the audience: “Originally we were going to subtitle it ‘An American Odyssey,’ but that felt too pretentious,” he said, explaining his original challenge of viewing and narrowing down over 400 hours of the band’s archival film, and 100 hours of interviews and concert footage he’d shot over the last two years.

Extensive interviews and commentary from Petty, current and former members of the Heartbreakers, as well as friends, family, admirers and collaborators including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, producer Jimmy Iovine, Roger McGuinn, Johnny Depp, Petty’s daughter Adria and his younger brother Bruce blend together to create a rich portrait and capture the true spirit and personality of the group.

Meeting Elvis Presley on a Florida movie set at age 11 left an indelible mark on young Petty, and when he saw the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, he knew without any doubt that he wanted to be a musician. He immediately began actively seeking out others who shared his interest. Recalling the day he first got a group of friends together at his house to play music, he explains, “We all plugged into the same amplifier, started playing a song we all knew, and WHAM, the heavens split open. It was the biggest rush of my life.”

Never-before-seen personal home movies and photos from Petty’s childhood and teenage years transport the audience back to a simpler time as he candidly describes his early days playing parties and school dances in his first bands, the “Sundowners” and the “Epics.” The first time he got paid, his mother couldn’t believe it. “She thought I’d stolen the money and was really concerned that I’d taken up a life of crime,” he says with a laugh.

The Epics were eventually renamed “Mudcrutch,” whose early history is immortalized in 8mm film shot by Petty’s friend Jim Lenahan (original Mudcrutch lead singer and current Heartbreakers lighting and set designer). In 1974, when Petty and his bandmates took a caravan of vehicles (one being a station wagon lent to them by keyboard player Benmont Tench’s mother) and left their hometown of Gainesville, Florida to seek a record deal in Hollywood, Lenahan’s camera was rolling.

Thanks to these early films, the audience gets to witness everything from the moment the station wagon breaks down in the middle of nowhere and is towed away, to the band’s first recording sessions, and their antics at the Los Angeles house provided to them by their record company which, to their delight and amazement, had a swimming pool. “Our entire trip out to California was documented on film,” Petty explained on the red carpet. “What amazes me most watching it now is how young we really were.”

Known for countless hit songs over three decades including “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Free Fallin,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Petty’s unassuming demeanor, wit and wry sense of humor make for engaging storytelling throughout the film. From the realities presented by relatively sudden fame and fortune, to personnel changes within the band (departure of original drummer Stan Lynch, and departure then eventual return of original bassist Ron Blair), his turbulent relationship with his father, drug and alcohol issues, divorce and arson, he has managed to keep the core of the Heartbreakers together and continued to thrive as a songwriter and artist.

Throughout his career, Petty’s continuous and undying efforts to fight fearlessly against music industry injustice and corporate greed are nothing short of inspirational. His undeniable musical talents complement his strength, sincerity and depth of character as a pioneer and advocate for artists’ rights. From early battles with his record label over publishing rights and his fight in the early ‘80’s to keep record prices down, to the subject matter of his 2005 solo album “The Last DJ,” Petty has remained true to himself, stood up for truth and integrity, and challenged what he felt were the rather questionable - and in fact, unacceptable - standards of the recording industry.

Electrifying live performances, rare television appearances, and genuine appreciation and connection with their audience illustrate exactly why this band’s popularity has continued to grow and flourish. Petty, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, original/current bassist Ron Blair, former drummer Stan Lynch, current drummer Steve Ferrone, multi-instrumentalist/background vocalist Scott Thurston, and former bassist Howie Epstein (in interviews filmed prior to his death) discuss in detail the dynamics of their work together through the years.

Behind-the-scenes footage from various recording sessions gives insight into their creative process, and compares the recording styles of individual producers they’ve chosen to collaborate with; Denny Cordell, Jimmy Iovine, and Rick Rubin mainly preferring to capture the band’s live sound, in contrast with Jeff Lynne’s style of recording each musician’s track individually, then adding layers of sound one at a time to create a final mix.

The film explores in-depth the band’s versatility, as well as their challenges and growth while touring for two years with music legend Bob Dylan, and how their work with producer Rick Rubin, and Petty’s friendship with Johnny Cash resulted in the band playing on Cash’s 1996 Grammy-winning country album “Unchained.”

“Runnin’ Down A Dream” also spotlights Petty’s experience as a member of The Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and two of his childhood heroes: George Harrison and Roy Orbison, as well as his success as a solo artist. Between his recordings with the Heartbreakers and his solo work, over the years he sold over 50 million albums, received 18 Grammy nominations, been honored with lifetime achievement awards including Billboard’s Century Award and MTV’s Video Vanguard Award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

According to Petty, the most poignant moments of the film for him were those pertaining to the loss of Howie Epstein, the band’s bass player and background vocalist from 1982 until his death from a heroin overdose in 2003. Epstein’s musical versatility and ability to sing high harmonies were originally what motivated Petty to recruit him from 60’s legend Del Shannon’s band.

When asked what advice he might give bands and musicians starting out today, Petty, ever gracious, and genuinely humble and heartfelt, offered a bit of timeless wisdom: “Constantly work to become a better songwriter, and always be true to yourself.”

Running at just under four hours long, this film is a dose of nirvana for any self-respecting Tom Petty fan, and is highly recommended for anyone looking for inspiration and proof that, in these days of instant gratification and, as Petty says, “rock stars invented on game shows,” there still exists an authentic tradition of musical quality, artistic truth, and human integrity.

© Tania Fardella 2007, all rights reserved.