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the take

Vulture Writes ‘Tom Petty's Mudcrutch: The Movie’

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records


Many music fans (like us) harangue their friends in bars about the lame aging-rocker move of recording throwback albums whose expensively lush production, tasteful arrangements (often featuring pedal steel), and similarity to beloved past work tricks critics into overlooking dull songwriting. For those fans, the general excellence of Tom Petty's throwback album, Mudcrutch, despite its high-quality production and embrace of pedal steel, is fairly upsetting. (Stream it here.) And it turns out the album's origins are actually pretty interesting, as this endearing Times profile explains. Mudcrutch was Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers, pre-fame band. They were apparently the toast of early seventies Gainesville, Florida (awesome) but fell apart when they tried to make it big. Two members stayed on with Petty (guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tensch), but two dropped out (another guitarist and a drummer, both of whom ended up with normal-person lives teaching music to kids). Recently, Petty decided it would be fun to get back together, and because he's Tom Petty, he called everyone up and they did.

The story is so great, actually, that we’ve already figured out the movie treatment. Cameron Crowe, are you listening?

Dennis Quaid plays a workaday music teacher with a wife and kids whose rock-star ex-bandmate (a long-haired, perpetually-stoned, playing-against-type Willem Dafoe) calls him up to re-form their old group. They're joined by down-on-his-luck Charlie Sheen, the onetime party-animal/Lothario drummer who’s now reduced to flirting with middle-aged housewives so they’ll hire him to perform as a clown at their children’s birthday parties.

At first, it's fun — especially the hilarious misunderstanding with aging groupie Goldie Hawn backstage at the first show — but then things get a little darker. Sheen’s character dropped out of the band way back in 1974 because of his drug problems, and addiction is again threatening to overtake him now that he’s back in the fast lane; meanwhile, family man Quaid is plagued by the thought that he might be falling in love with Stevie Nicks (played by Emmylou Harris), who joins the band on their tour. And worst of all, the rock-star lifestyle has taken Quaid away from the music students who count on him.

The film’s climactic scene is a loading-dock smoke-break conversation between Quaid and Dafoe as Quaid is faced with a choice between playing the band’s Big Concert and seeing his students play their Big Recital. Dafoe’s character admits he’d trade all the fame, fortune, glory, and cocaine for a family to spend Christmas Eve with, and Quaid bolts. In the end, of course, a sunglasses-wearing Dafoe and the rest of the band show up at Quaid’s school with their gear to play the recital’s encore (“Johnny B. Goode”). And in footage played over the credits, we see that Quaid’s place in the band has been taken ... by a beaming Tom Petty. —Ben Mathis-Lilley