Rock docs play fast and loose
Two new rock ‘n’ roll documentaries come to television this week. Tonight, Sundance Channel screens Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour jog through the 30-year career of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” (“Four-hour documentary on Tom Petty” will tell you right away where you stand on this thing.) And Saturday, VH1 will air, without commercial interruption, “Amazing Journey,” a new movie about the Who that, like the Petty film, attempts to squeeze the band’s whole career and much of its dirty laundry into a single suitcase.
Each film has been authorized by its subjects; indeed, they are the agents of their creation. All the survivors are heard from and (archivally) the relevant casualties as well. Each film will show you things you haven’t seen before -- home movies, unpublished pictures, footage lost in someone’s garage for 40 years. And each, coincidentally, features Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder in the role of analyst-fan; “Dream” adds Dave Grohl and Stevie Nicks; “Journey” has Noel Gallagher and the Edge. (Among many others.)
It’s almost pointless to judge these films as cinema; they are designed, essentially, as gift boxes, treasure houses. Neither has the focused power of, say, “Gimme Shelter” or “Monterey Pop.” Notwithstanding these small-screen broadcasts and a few scattered big-screen showings, their true medium is the DVD; they are meant to live on your shelf, to be taken down and sampled and even obsessed over, clip by clip. They are exactly the sum of their parts. And that is quite enough for me; I am who they are made for.
Although “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is billed as “a Peter Bogdanovich film,” there’s nothing to identify it stylistically as such, apart from the John Ford clip that John Ford fan Bogdanovich works in to illustrate Petty’s youthful love of cowboy movies. But he does a good job at cutting scattered interviews into a seamless narrative, and though it’s Petty’s pointed humor that sets the tone, it’s nice to hear the rest of the band speak for a change. As in “Amazing Journey,” the most compelling part of the story is the beginning, when it all comes together -- “Amazing Journey” takes 40 minutes just to get to “My Generation.”
One reason that “Dream” runs so long is that it’s generous with music -- whether in concert clips, TV shots or videos, most songs are allowed to run long, with few or no interrupting voice-overs. From a fan standpoint, this is unquestionably the right decision, and the songs tell the story as certainly as does what lies, in a phrase I heard somewhere once, “behind the music.” The theme that emerges here, if you want one, is sticking to your guns, morally and musically -- to borrow another Petty title, it might as easily have been called “I Won’t Back Down.” It’s all about staying pure, even when you’re a little messed up.
By contrast, “Amazing Journey,” which runs something like half the length of the Petty film, scants the music -- it comes only in flashes. Yet it stills feels musical, visually -- the Who dressed and moved as if to make it clear to even someone as deaf as Tommy (though not, of course, as blind) that this was rock. If I were going to try to sell someone on the greatness of the band, I would sooner send them to “The Kids Are Alright,” Jeff Stein’s 1979 nonlinear film scrapbook, which -- though it skips around in time and is short on information -- better communicates the majesty of the band. But the new film fills in a lot of gaps.
Co-directors Paul Crowder and Murray Lerner concentrate on the talk. Pete Townshend, who in the past has strained to distance himself from rock ‘n’ roll and almost compulsively belittled bandmate Roger Daltrey, has relaxed some. He is like a man who has quit struggling against his marriage -- and has decided that this is his life and, all told, a good one. Indeed, “Amazing Journey” makes a case for the then-they-were-two Who as a band that deserves your continuing interest -- something of a feat, given that you have just seen them at the height of their powers. For a band whose watchwords were aggression and chaos, their story in the end is surprisingly sweet and moving.
‘Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’
Where: Sundance Channel
When: 7 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).
‘Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who’
When: 9 p.m. Saturday