Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2010 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // August 16th, 2010
"Even the losers get lucky sometimes."
I was apathetic to rock and pop music before I hit my tweenage years, but if there was one artist who managed to capture my eight-year-old attention, it was Tom Petty. At twelve, my brother received his first guitar, as well as a musical 'starter' set of CDs. It was a strange mis-mash -- Led Zeppelin's collected hits next to the cringe-worthy jam of Dave Matthews Band. As all little brothers regard their older siblings as masters of cool, my eight-year-old mind zeroed in on his new stash for my next parasitic feed. Only one of these records stood out to me at the time, and that was Tom Petty's Wildflowers. Maybe it was the country-fried guitar riffs or the nostalgic, folk-rock feel. A badass music video for the single "You Don't Know How It Feels" didn't hurt my opinion either. I became hooked, listening obsessively to an album which held profound adult messages I couldn't possibly comprehend, but desperately wished I could.
By the time I was 10, I got strung out somewhere between his Greatest Hits and other wonderfully surreal videos that seemed to play round clock on VH1 (we didn't have MTV). Here, I became acquainted with vintage, early-years Tom Petty. Somehow it was easier for a kid to connect with the angsty adolescent lyrics of "American Girl" and "Refugee" than it was angsty, middle-aged Tom Petty of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Walls." These songs opened doors for me to move on to the harder stuff -- The Beatles, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, the Space Jam soundtrack (I was ten! Shut up!). Despite these influences, the ghost of Tom Petty continues to haunt me well into my twenties. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes offers an interesting bridge between these disparate eras as contemporary band members dissect an album that speaks consummately to the angry, romantic twenty-something in all of us.
Damn the Torpedoes, the band's third album, is remembered by both fans and critics as the album in which the band finally came into their own. Following on the heels of their moderately successful self-titled debut and You're Gonna Get It, Torpedoes paired the group with producer Jimmy Iovine and, after a much publicized break with MCA, Shelter Records. It was also the album that Petty pursued with the fiercest artistic independence, financing it out of his own pocket. This choice left him bankrupt, vilified as a thorn in the side of the music industry, and broke him into the Billboard Top 10. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes, the latest in Eagle Vision's Classic Albums documentary series, tells the story.
Damn the Torpedoes isn't a Behind-the-Music tell-all document of the band's rise and impact on the music industry (for that, see the Peter Bogdanovich documentary Runnin' Down A Dream). Instead, the DVD is a deconstruction of the classic album and the events surrounding its inception. While the doc briefly touches on the band's history before the album, the film is more about the Heartbreakers artistic process, seen through the veteran hindsight of the band thirty-one years after its release. These wizened rock stars have a lot of fun picking apart the history and creative juices that went into the album with Torpedoes producers, engineers, and journalistic worshippers in tow. If you're a hardcore Tom Petty fan, you'll have just as much fun watching them.
The thrust of the documentary focuses on the formation of the album's biggest hits: "Refugee," "Even the Losers," "Don't Do Me Like That" and "Here Comes My Girl," with some time given to "Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)" and "Louisiana Rain." The doc breaks the recording process down meticulously, but never tediously, focusing less on the writing of the songs (Petty, an amazingly underrated lyricist, is prone to banging out lyrics to songs like "Refugee" in less than ten minutes) and more on the perfectionist struggles that came with recording them.
These segments put a definite emphasis on the dying art of classic studio recording, a reminder of the days before ProTools, when artists had to rely equally on analog and imagination to finesse their sound, rather than desktop software and the click of a mouse. Petty, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, and Jimmy Iovine plow through reels in front of a mixing board, isolating the subtle nuances in the percussion of "Refugee" (the samba shaker makes all the difference). Engineer Shelly Yakis and keyboardist Benmont Tench take us through the wobbly keyboard licks in "Louisiana Rain" and the intertwining piano melodies of "Here Comes My Girl" with equal gusto. The subject matter is made far more interesting by the sheer presence and chemistry these guys share. Even in his 60s, Petty is a fascinating, weirdly funny guy, and watching him and the rest of the band spin the story of the album is a genuine treat.
A constant analysis of Petty's style, form, and compositional prowess reminds us why the name Tom Petty headlines the Heartbreakers. Virtually everyone in the film agrees that Petty is the major creative engine behind the band, fondly reminiscing a twenty-something kid so obsessed with his craft he put himself into bankruptcy. His writing philosophies are especially fascinating, acknowledging that if it can't be played acoustically, it isn't really a song -- a simplistic criteria more musicians (or artists in general) should heed. Fans will especially enjoy seeing a certain gleam in Petty's, um, sunglasses (rockstars don't need eye contact) when reflecting on the anthemic nature of the album -- a predominately raucous, defiant collection of songs that extend a middle finger to the music industry while displaying a sweetness and naiveté unique to the Heartbreakers sound.
Ever the humble rock star, Tom dedicates the majority of his interview time to singing the praises of his bandmates, each of whom are well-represented. Mike Campbell's virtuoso 12-string strumming (on the guitar Petty wields on the album cover, no less) is given arguably more praise than Petty's guitar skills. Benmont Tench's subtle keyboarding gets considerable screen-time, as does Ron Blair's foundation-like bass guitar. Ironically, drummer Stan Lynch is the only Heartbreaker absent from the doc (sans archive footage), but is the one who seems to get the most attention musically and dramatically, as detailed by a feud between Petty and Iovine that led to him being kicked off the project for a stretch.
If there are any problems with the documentary, they come with glossing over lesser-known songs from the album. "Century City," "What Are You Doin' In My Life," and "You Tell Me" feel barely touched upon, a void that may disappoint fans. It's a legitimate complaint considering the intentions of the DVD, but feels like small potatoes when weighed against the overall entertainment value of the documentary.
Video-wise, the image is a little soft, but as clean as anything you're likely to see on television. The stereo-only audio option is appropriate for the material, rocking about as hard as it can within its limited parameters (just like the album!). On the bonus side, we're given a cheesetacular vintage commercial and 42 minutes of bonus material that delves even deeper into the album, picking apart Easter Eggs and giving said unrepresented songs a little more action.
She's a complex kid. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage
* Vintage Commercial