When the Chicago Bulls won their first NBA championship in 1991, the video documentary chronicling that season was titled “Learning to Fly.”
It was an apt description of that magical season. It was a perfect metaphor to describe Michael Jordan’s ascent from established superstar to world champion.
As we see footage of Jordan and Pippen in the pre-championship years, struggling to find the right rhythm against the likes of the Celtics and the Pistons, we hear the words of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers:
Well I started out
Down a dirty road
And the sun went down
As I crossed the hill
And the town lit up
The world got still
I’m learning to fly
But I ain’t got wings
Is the hardest thing
By 1991, the tight, catchy, jangling-guitar sounds of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — and the unmistakable sounds of Petty’s voice, with that hint of Dylan but a Florida-influenced twang all its own — had become a staple of movies and television shows.
For some four decades, Petty’s rich and varied catalog of hits not only was a dominant force on car radios and in concert venues, it also was a staple on the soundtracks for countless TV shows and movies.
The 1978 movie “FM” didn’t demonstrate a whole lot of understanding about the radio business, but the soundtrack was a keeper, starting with the title track from Steely Dan and featuring Petty’s “Breakdown.”
One of my favorite early examples of Petty’s music put to great use in a movie: the first time we see the high school in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), with the kids covering the trees in toilet paper and pulling pranks on one another, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy and Judge Reinhold’s Brad, among others, arriving at school, it’s Petty’s “American Girl” playing on the soundtrack. Along with the mall scene (set to the Go-Go’s’ “We Got the Beat”), it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Nearly a decade later, “American Girl” became an unforgettable element in a film that was about as far away from the ribald hijinks of “Fast Times” as cinema can get.
“The Silence of the Lambs.”
Memphis, Tennessee A young woman (Brooke Smith) is driving down a four-door sedan down a dark road, enthusiastically drumming on the steering wheel and singing along with “American Girl.” A moment later, she will pull up to her apartment complex — but she will never make it inside. Instead she will wind up in the back of a van.
Petty composed the soundtrack for Edward Burns’ 1996 romantic comedy “She’s the One.” Songs such as “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Don’t Come Around Here” and “Even the Losers” popped up on TV shows and in films throughout the years.
“The Sopranos.” “The Wire.” “Parks and Recreation.” “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “Judgment Night.” “Lethal Weapon 2.” “Elizabethtown.”
So many of Tom Petty’s songs were instantly recognizable, they were well-suited to transitional cuts announcing a change in mood, or overhead shots setting the scene, or as background music in an Americana venue.
And let’s not forget Petty’s somewhat unlikely emergence as a groundbreaking force in music videos.
The “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985) with Petty as the Mad Hatter, is a wickedly funny and disturbingly effective surreal short film. “Into the Great Wide Open” (1991) is a dark cautionary tale set in Hollywood, starring Johnny Deep, Faye Dunaway, Gabrielle Anwar and Petty in multiple roles. (“The sky was … the limit.”)
Of course, Petty’s music was classic American rock ‘n’ roll all on its own, whether you were listening to him on the radio or soaking in one of the thousands of great live performances he turned in over the decades.
Man could that man play.