We’re at SXSW… kind of! The event is taking place virtually this year so while we’re all watching movies online we’re still bringing you coverage of the best film festival of the year. Check out all of our SXSW 2021 coverage.
At a point in Tom Petty’s illustrious career, he reached a crossroad. Two decades with his band, The Heartbreakers, and he was itching for a new direction. Weary of the democratic process that goes along with being in a band, Petty wanted to put out a second solo album. Not that he was a domineering band leader or there was any malcontent among the members (the core of the band remained mostly intact throughout its tenure), but a creator like him wanted another chance to be the first and final voice in what songs make the cut. The result was his wildly successful Wildflowers album.
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free
Directors: Mary Wharton
Release Date: March 17, 2021 (SXSW)
In Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, found footage taken during the creation of Wildflowers provides a time capsule of Petty’s creative process. Instead of working with longtime producer Jeff Lynne, Petty called upon Rick Rubin, a producer who made a name for himself in the hip-hop world as co-founder of Def Jam Recordings. In the documentary, Rubin laughs about how he felt Petty’s music was mellow by comparison, but that didn’t stop him from jumping in with both feet when Petty reached out. The two immediately hit it off, and Petty even mentions that he doesn’t remember officially hiring Rubin, but after that first day he kept showing up and the two got along great together. Rubin would end up working with Petty on two other albums.
For fans of Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free provides a studio-centric behind-the-scenes look at the thought process Petty and his team went through to create Wildflowers. From spending an entire day working on one small piano part to the album’s titular song created in one take from a stream of consciousness, the documentary explores all aspects of studio life. While Wildflowers is a solo album, Petty enlisted the help of his Heartbreaker bandmates piecemeal style, to the point where it was like getting the band back together. Similar to his first solo album–Full Moon Fever–Petty’s Wildflowers produced a sound different from that of the albums produced by the band as a whole.
Back to the crossroad. When Petty began this album, he admits in the footage that two relationships–his marriage and his record contract–weren’t in great standing. The latter was a contract he was itching to get out of, and to do so he needed to record two songs for a Heartbreakers greatest hits album. One of those songs was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, which became one of the band’s most notable songs. Wildflowers was his first album on his new record deal with Warner Bros., and the sense of relief can be felt in the footage.
As he wrote tracks for Wildflowers, Petty’s daughter caught a sense of what was to come. In the documentary, Adria Petty recalls hearing songs such as “Don’t Fade On Me” and knowing that the relationship between her mother and father would be coming to an end. Petty recalls in the doc that he wasn’t thinking of it at the time, but looking back feels it was his subconscious creating the narrative that would eventually lead to his divorce. The curious mind may hope for more depth into his personal and professional relationships, but this isn’t that kind of documentary.
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is light. It revels in the lightheartedness Petty often displayed on stage and in the studio, riffing off goofy limericks while waiting to record to help ease any stress and put smiles on their faces. Interviews with bandmates, family members, and clipped footage from Petty before his death offer greater insight into the creation of the Wildflowers album, and the exceptional relationship between him and his bandmates. Often when an artist goes solo, rarely do they bring in members from their band to help record the solo album. Petty started off on his own, then brought in the people he felt would best fit what he was looking for, and by the end, a majority of the songs were backed up by members of The Heartbreakers. Aside from Stan Lynch, a drummer who was with the band for eighteen years before parting ways, the relationship among the group remained steadfast. When they found a new drummer in Steve Ferrone to session for the Wildflowers, Petty realized he would make a perfect fit as the new drummer for The Heartbreakers. Ferrone remained with the band up until Petty’s death in 2017.
While remaining rather light throughout its hour-and-a-half runtime, Somewhere You Feel Free provides an encapsulating snapshot of Tom Petty at a particular place in his life in the early ‘90s. Fans of his who are already more knowledgeable about Petty’s career may not find it revelatory, but fans of music and creating things will find interest in watching an artist at work. It also feels like a tribute to Petty, which provides an overall heartwarming look back.