Tom Petty In Film And Television

A look back at some additional ways the legend shaped popular culture.

We lost a truly monumental figure yesterday with the passing of Tom Petty at the age of 66. He was one of the rare artists whose work tended to unite Americans across the board. Even in the deeply divided landscape we have today, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Petty.

We posted another article honoring Petty by looking at some of his amazing music videos. I wanted to take a moment to highlight how he affected other parts of our culture. These are just some of the highlights that entered my mind. It is by no means a complete list, and I welcome your additions in the comments.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

There’s just something so free and anarchic about the usage of “American Girl” to mark the first day of school. The pairing of this song and Amy Heckerling’s visuals put you in a time and place so strong that you can almost smell the late summer grass and lose yourself in the cacophony of it all.

Jerry Maguire

Speaking of freeing, this has to be one of the best expressions of it. Cameron Crowe of course knows his way around music, and there’s real brilliance of not just cutting to Cruise losing himself to “Free Falling” but first having him search the radio for some song that can match his inner elation before he loses the moment. Naturally, Petty’s anthem gives him the perfect outlet to celebrate his much-needed victory.

The Silence of the Lambs

And on the flip side of that, there’s this deeply ironic usage of “American Girl” in The Silence of the Lambs, which takes all that Tom Petty jubilation and brings it crashing down to nightmarish levels. It’s so perfect that I don’t mind having “American Girl” show up twice on this list.

The Postman (apologies for the shitty video)

And hey! Tom Petty didn’t just make music. He also acted, often as himself, which is the case with this funky cameo in The Postman - a movie I feel a lot more people would have watched if they only knew Tom Petty would be in it.

Parks and Recreation (I looked and looked but could not find video of this moment)

“Wildflowers” is a song that can illicit tears all by itself. So using it as the send-off song for Anna and Chris’ departure from Parks and Recreation is practically an emotional cheat. But it’s a really, really good cheat and a perfect utilization of the song from a show that was not afraid to go emotional when needed. I think I have something in my eye.

Running Down a Dream

Running Down a Dream (streaming on Netflix right now!) is Peter Bogdanovich’s straightforward but exhaustive look at Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Yes, it is four hours long. Were it a normal two-hour running time, the film would come off as bland and rushed. The long running time is actually the film’s secret weapon, allowing us enough time to get emotionally invested in a way we would not have were it just "playing the hits" or focusing solely on Petty. Watch it.

She’s the One

One of the very few projects Running Down a Dream fails to cover is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ soundtrack for the Ed Burns movie She’s the One. The highlight of the songs Petty provided is undoubtedly “Walls (Circus)” but his cover of Beck’s “Asshole” is no slouch either.

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