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Blair’s DVD Watch: Three for the Holidays: Petty, Stax and Mahavishnu

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream (Warner Bros.)

This has got to be the DVD bargain of the year. For just a little more than you’d pay for a single CD, you get an incredibly interesting and great-sounding documentary covering the entire history of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers—by Oscar-nominated director Peter Bogdanovich—a full 2006 concert by the band, and an audio CD of rarities. Chances are, every true fan of the band has already bought this DVD and devoured it eagerly. So I’m here to appeal to casual fans of the group to take the plunge and spring for it. It’s definitely one of the better rock docs and concerts out there.

Not surprisingly, the historical documentary is anchored by quotes from Petty, who is an articulate and occasionally amusing storyteller who has no interest in whitewashing history, but instead tell it like it is (or was). This is his and the band’s story, warts and all. Practically everyone ever connected to the group appears on screen to offer insights and anecdotes—it’s a nice bunch of folks, as you might expect—and then there are also comments from the likes of Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn, Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne and many others you’d expect (and some you wouldn’t….Johnny Depp?) As one who has followed the band closely through the years (and interviewed them several times in the late ’70s and early ’80s), I was most intrigued by the era I knew least about—the pre-Heartbreakers days in Florida. There’s a surprising amount of cool footage and photos from those days, and we get to hear parts of a number of songs by Mudcrutch, the first band to feature both Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell.

With four hours (!) to work with, the documentary doesn’t skimp on either the story or the music in any way. Bogdanovich deftly intercuts current and archival interviews, bits of promotional videos; never-before-seen live footage from every era; whatever works to advance the saga. The six or seven minutes devoted to their mid-’80s tour with Bob Dylan is extremely illuminating, but then it’s all interesting and expertly crafted.

The two-hour 30th anniversary “homecoming” concert in Gainesville is also superb. It’s loaded with great versions of many TP hits, but, as is always the case with this band, there are some great cover tunes, from a jacked-up take on Muddy Waters’ “I’m A Man,” to early Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” to Van Morrison/Them’s “Mystic Eyes.” Honorary Heartbreaker Stevie Nicks sounds great on three tunes (including her smash, cowritten with Petty, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) and a special treat is the group’s take on the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.”

It’s quite astonishing to realize how many GREAT songs this band has produced over the past three decades. They’re all here, either in the documentary or the concert, plus this will no doubt turn you on to some of their excellent lesser-known tunes, as well…there are a million of those, too. In the end, even though it’s necessarily Petty-centric, this is mostly a fantastic picture of a hard-working band. Lord knows they’ve had their ups and downs (all chronicled here), but they speak of each other and the group and their story with such obvious affection, it hard not to be swept away by their enthusiasm. Three decades down the line, they still seem like the same music-loving misfits they were when they were teenagers. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Documentary directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Supervising music mixer: Ryan Ulyate. Music producer: George Drakoulias. Concert directed by Joe Thomas. Music recorded. Mixed and produced by Ryan Ulyate.