'Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free': Film Review | SXSW 2021

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel
Courtesy of Robert Sebree/SXSW

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty

More celebratory than revelatory, but there's plenty to celebrate.

Mary Wharton's SXSW Centerpiece selection revolves around recently discovered footage of Tom Petty during the making of his 1994 solo album, 'Wildflowers.'

With his second solo album, Tom Petty wanted to step away from the Heartbreakers, his band of musical brothers for almost 20 years at the time. The beautiful paradox is that, player by player, the people with whom he chose to record Wildflowers turned out to be those very same musicians (the exception being a new drummer, Steve Ferrone, who would go on to become a full-fledged Heartbreaker of long standing). That Petty ultimately viewed the 1994 release, perhaps his most openly personal, as a band album is one of the delectable and illuminating takeaways from a new documentary that delves into his archives.

Somewhere You Feel Free is a love letter, not a long-view deep dive à la Runnin’ Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich's exhaustive, incisive and essential 2007 doc about Petty and the Heartbreakers. Mary Wharton, a seasoned producer of music documentaries who last year directed Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President, builds her film around 16mm footage discovered in early 2020. Shot by Martyn Atkins and dating from 1993-95, the material chronicles the Wildflowers recording sessions and the tour that followed, capturing an off-the-cuff intimacy in the studio and on the road. It's complemented by home movies, and the film itself is shaped by interviews — new ones with people who were in that studio, and excerpts of Petty interviews from the period.

Petty was at a crossroads when he embarked on the project, his first with Warner Bros. after a long run at MCA. His marriage was unraveling — for his daughter Adria Petty, an exec producer of the film and one of its interviewees, Wildflowers signaled very clearly that her parents would soon be divorced. In keeping with the sense of privacy that defined Petty, a musician who had no interest in being a celebrity, the film maintains a respectful distance from his grief, suffering and retreat. It acknowledges the hard times while zeroing in on the process of songcraft and reinvention, as much as an established stadium superstar can reinvent himself.

But somehow he did — or, at the least, he expanded his scope. According to Adria, the gritty rock of '90s Northwest artists Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain struck a chord with her dad. "I feel very prolific right now," the Gainesville boy turned Angeleno says as he's embarking on his Wildflowers adventure. "I feel more like me."

That adventure would find him working with Rick Rubin, a producer with an impeccable track record and one whose unusual approach, prioritizing sensibility over technology, proved an apt fit for Petty's state of mind. Under Rubin's free-form helm, Petty and company recorded a double album's worth of songs. The film gives us a look at the large handwritten chart that documented those songs' progress — enough to bring tears of analog joy to Excel-exhausted eyes. But even superstars are told no, and Warner Bros. nixed the double-disc idea. Casualties of the ensuing editing process included a track with Ringo Starr and Carl Wilson sitting in.

The difference between Rubin's live, stripped-down production style and the multi-track layering of Jeff Lynne, Petty's fellow Traveling Wilbury and producer of his previous two albums, is expressed in various ways by a number of interview subjects. However heartfelt and insightful, this line of commentary grows so repetitious that a feeling of promotional tie-in begins to intrude — the promoted item being Wildflowers and All the Rest, a double-album corrective to Warners' long-ago decision that was released in October 2020, a quarter century after Wildflowers and three years after Petty's death at 66.

Somewhere You Feel Free is a love letter to Petty, but also to that most mysterious of alchemies, the chemistry of a rock 'n' roll band. New material captures a recent, socially distanced outdoor conversation between Rubin and two original Heartbreakers, lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, reminiscing about the making of the album. There are separate interviews with drummer Ferrone and George Drakoulias, a producer, all-around "guru" and random instrumentalist. Bassist Howie Epstein, who died in 2003, is seen in vintage footage. The underlying theme across the years is how much they loved and admired Petty and the chance to create music with him: You can see it in their faces, then and now.

For fans, the chance to spend up-close time with him and his songs is the film's strength. Discerning and terrifically funny, focused but easygoing, he makes hard work look simple. He downplays the importance of the work, but his facility for seductive melodies and lean, unaffected poetics that pack whole life stories into a few lines places him among the greatest of songwriters. Petty wrote and recorded countless songs that somehow feel classic on first hearing, lifting your spirits while honoring your soul. The best songs, he says in the film, "just fall out." The title track of Wildflowers, one of his most achingly lovely numbers, is an extreme example of this, coming to him fully formed.

In a quintessential Los Angeles story, Rubin recalls that Petty's first solo album, Full Moon Fever, became the soundtrack to his behind-the-wheel days as a new transplant to L.A. In 2017 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrated 40 years in the business with a U.S. tour, closing with a couple of knockout shows at the Hollywood Bowl, one of which I was lucky to attend. The news, days later, of his death, hurt like hell — not only because I'd just seen him, but because his music had been a crucial part of my L.A. soundtrack too. Wharton's doc might have given us more of the studio nitty-gritty behind Wildflowers, but it lets new and familiar sides of that soundtrack wash over you, and that's a very good thing.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Centerpiece)
Production company: Inaudible Films
Director-screenwriter: Mary Wharton
Producer: Peter Afterman
Executive producers: Mary Wharton, Dan Braun, Adria Petty, Aaron Bay-Schuck, Tom Corson, Charlie Cohen
Director of photography: Anne Etheridge
Editor: Mari Keiko Gonzalez
Wildflowers archival footage directed and filmed by Martyn Atkins
Sales: Submarine

90 minutes