The late Tom Petty was a musical genius of rare stature. He was the sort of artist who could, as is detailed in the illuminating documentary “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” take a break midway through the career renaissance of his landmark 1994 album Wildflowers to casually lay down one of his all-time biggest hits, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” on a contractual obligation with his old record label.
The basis of “Somewhere You Feel Free,” which headlined the South by Southwest 2021 film festival, is an archive of 16 millimeter footage discovered early last year, shot by Petty filmographer Martyn Atkins. Dating between 1993 and 1995, the footage chronicles Petty’s creative process during a strange transitional stage of his career. By the time Petty began working on Wildflowers, he had enjoyed monumental success for decades. Early songs such as “American Girl” and “Breakdown” put Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, on the map, and their 1979 masterpiece Damn the Torpedoes cemented their place in the annals of rock history.
More than 10 years after Torpedos, however, Petty was chafing with the group dynamic. Early in “Somewhere You Feel Free,” director Mary Wharton emphasizes Petty’s need to break free from the artistic cushion his regular band had provided. “I’d been in a band my whole life,” Petty explains in an archival interview. “I really wanted to be free of the democratic process. I think it was time to just turn a corner and find another place to go.”
One of the key changes that Wharton focuses on was Petty’s inclusion of Def Jam Recordings founder Rick Rubin as producer on Wildflowers. In addition to archival footage, Wharton includes present-day interviews with Petty’s collaborators — in Rubin’s interview, he describes an initial rejection, in which he was told he would “never get to work with Tom Petty.” When Rubin and Petty finally did get together, however, Wharton carefully illustrates how their opposing creative tendencies produced a record with an unexpected, unique character.
One of the best segments of “Somewhere You Feel Free” takes viewers through Petty’s disenchantment with longtime Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, who felt that Petty’s laid-back, treble-driven jangle rock was too mellow. When Lynch’s replacement Steve Ferrone enters the scene, his energy is infectious — even close to three decades later, Ferrone’s enthusiasm for the music and his admiration of Petty is palpable. Ferrone’s interviews resonate with viewers the most, particularly following Petty’s sudden passing in 2017.
Wharton’s film takes care to note that Wildflowers was not just different due to lineup changes. This album saw Petty write his most personal music yet, reflecting on his departure from the Heartbreakers and ongoing divorce proceedings, a period of identity crisis best summarized with a poetic self-awareness by Petty himself in “To Find A Friend”: “In the middle of his life/ He left his wife/ And ran off to be bad/ Boy, it was sad.”
Some of the most honest moments occur in interviews Wharton conducted with Petty’s daughter Adria Petty, who was also an executive producer for the documentary. Adria Petty discusses her complicated reaction to songs such as “To Find A Friend” and “Don’t Fade on Me,” which is also about her father’s disillusionment with his marriage and home life, shedding light on an aspect of Petty’s personality rarely made so accessible.
Though “Somewhere You Feel Free” is rife with incredible archival footage and is full of interesting context for the legendary Wildflowers album, the overall arrangement of the material is fragmented. Rather than finding a connected feature structure, Wharton opts to arrange the documentary as episodes that delve into individual songs on the track list.
Each classic gets its due, from the album’s title track (the chorus of which also gives the documentary its name) to hard rock anthems such as “You Wreck Me” and “Cabin Down Below” to beautiful, melancholy ballads such as “Crawling Back to You.” The resulting film, however, has little in way of cohesiveness — rather than painting a portrait of the artist, the documentary gives viewers a collection of scattered glimpses.
Still, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” contains enough of Petty’s spirit that, especially for those who already love him, it is a riveting and comforting watch.