‘Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free’ is a wonderful, revealing look into ‘Wildflowers’ (SXSW Review)
Last October saw the release of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and All The Rest box set -- an all-encompassing collection of just about everything that was recorded for his 1994 masterpiece. On the heels of that now comes this lovely and heartfelt documentary Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, which premiered at the SXSW 2021 Online Film Festival where it won this year's Audience Award.
As the story goes, Petty found himself in 1993 at a crossroads. Coming off great success with 1989’s radio-ready blockbuster Full Moon Fever and its equally shiny 1991 follow-up Into the Great Wide Open -- both of which were produced by Jeff Lynne -- he was ready for something more personal. He envisioned a singer-songwriter record that, while including members of the Heartbreakers, would not be a “Heartbreakers” record. The feeling being that if he only created with the same people, he would never grow as an artist. Looking for someone to oversee the project, he called in Rick Rubin who had been previously rebuffed by Petty’s management, saying “Tom only works with Jeff Lynne.” Rubin provided Tom with a different, yet nurturing environment. “I’d write songs in my house and then have my friend Rick come over and tell me what he thought.” The fruits of this collaboration provided a wealth of material, enough to put out a double album that was eventually rejected by the record company as being cost prohibitive. Tom eventually relented, agreeing to cut it down to a single album, but wanted to have the complete version released.
Using 16mm film shot during the time when the album was made, along with new interviews and older footage from as far back as his beginnings in Gainesville Florida, director Mary Wharton provides an up close and uncharacteristically revealing glimpse into an artist during one of his most fertile periods. The footage travels the entire way from early skeletal compositions to the final full band recordings, including orchestrations conducted by Michael Kamen, that incorporates not just the making of a much-loved record but also the lives of those during its creation.
It’s been well documented that during the time this album was made Tom’s marriage to his first wife was unraveling and for the first time he was in therapy. We hear about this as footage shows Petty and Heartbreakers bass player Howie Epstein composing the mournful breakup song "To Find A Friend." Later in the film, Tom’s daughter Adria states that she knew her parents were breaking up when she heard "Don’t Fade on Me." There are also touching moments such as Tom, guitar in hand, and keyboardist Benmont Tench sitting together laying down vocals and harmony for Wildflowers' glistening acoustic title track.
There are also plenty of lighthearted moments, such as fan favorite b-side "Girl on LSD," here presented in a rollicking live performance. Surprising moments, too, such as when they think they don’t hear a hit song yet, with someone asking "well, what sounds like a hit song on the radio?" The response: "The Joker" by The Steve Miller Band, which leads to Tom coming in the next day with "You Don’t Know How it Feels," featuring newly installed drummer Steve Ferrone’s match of "The Joker"’s signature drum beat. The song would be Petty's last US Top 40 hit, reaching #13.
In one of the film’s most revealing and sad sequences is the final days of Heartbreakers longtime drummer Stan Lynch’s involvement with the band. As we see in the film, Lynch was not a fan of the direction Wildflowers was going and tension comes to a head with Tom saying he can’t do it anymore and has to let him go. Their final work together was "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," which was composed for the Heartbreakers' 1993 Greatest Hits<?I> album that would finalize their contract with MCA Records, leading the way for Tom to sign with Warner Brothers. In retrospect, not a bad way to go out as it became one of their most beloved songs.
The most tender parts of the film, though, are the interviews with the surviving band members, Rubin, executive producer/engineer/court jester George Drakoulias and clubhouse manager/keeper of Heartbreaker history, Alan ‘Bugs’ Weidel. It’s in their words and simple expressions (Campbell in particular looking shell shocked much of the time) that we see not only the greatness of the man but the toll his passing has taken on each of them and the immeasurable loss they, and subsequently those of us as fans, are still dealing with. As Benmont says at the end, an artist sounds different once they are gone.
Wildflowers, Somewhere You Feel Free is not just a document of the making of what was undeniably Tom Petty’s greatest work but a story of love and loss. Along with the box set, its an immersive gift for those of us in thrall with its music and the genius of its creator. Wherever Tom is these days floating among the Wildflowers, you can be certain he is smiling.
Related: Many of the Wildflowers outtakes found on the box set are getting released as new album Finding Wildflowers.