Mary Wharton’s assemblage of lost footage from the artist’s Wildflowers recording sessions celebrates his life and works, but the lack of conflict makes it hard to latch onto.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.)
Released in 1994, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, the second solo project that he recorded away from his longtime band The Heartbreakers, has gone on to assume a place of prominence in the discography of the late rocker with many—Petty among them—regarding it as the finest work of his career. And yet, for as laid back and relaxed as the final product sounded, it was recorded during an especially tumultuous period in his personal and professional lives, one that included the dissolution of his first marriage, his parting of the ways with original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch and his departure from longtime label MCA in order to sign with Warner Brothers.
This is the period chronicled in Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, a new documentary from Mary Wharton that is as genial, easygoing, and likable as its subject, almost too much so at certain points.
The impetus for this film was the discovery of a trove of 16MM footage shot during the extensive recording sessions for the album and then locked away without ever being used. This previously unseen material makes up a good portion of the resulting film, which also utilizes present-day interviews with a number of people, ranging from album producer Rick Rubin and various members of the Heartbreakers (although technically a solo album, all of the Heartbreakers except for Lynch would end up playing on it) to Petty’s daughter Adria to reflect back on the making of the record and their relationships with Petty.
As genial, easygoing, and likable as its subject, almost too much so at certain points.
The older footage of Petty recording isn’t particularly revelatory—there are no real moments of overt studio tension (which seems unlikely considering the extended period of time used for the recording) or creative inspiration of note—and when the rougher moments Petty as going through at the time are brought up in the later-day interviews, neither the film nor the interviewees plunge into them in any real detail.
Of course, with the tragic and too-early passing of Petty in 2017, it’s understandable that the film would want to take a more celebratory approach. But even so, there are some aspects—such as the late decision, reportedly at the suggestion of label executives, to take what Petty had originally planned to be a double album and cut it down to one—where I suspect many viewers (especially the fans that are likely to be the film’s target audience) would like a little more inside information than what has been presented here.
Compared to such recent deep-dive music documentaries as Miss Americana (2020) and Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (2021), Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free may seem slight by comparison and, at times, little more than an extended advertisement for Wildflowers & All the Rest, the 2020 reissue that restored the songs dropped from its original release.
However, if you are a fan of Petty—and it’s virtually impossible to conceive of a rock music follower who isn’t a fan of his to some degree—Wharton does present an entertaining and ultimately poignant portrait of the artist at work at the time of what would be his greatest creation. If it’s ultimately not quite as wonderful as its subject in the end, that says more about Petty than it does about the film.