Written in the midst of a painful divorce and on the cusp of an artistic renaissance that would continue for decades afterward, Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” would become the fastest-selling album that he ever made as either a solo artist or the frontman of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It was certified triple platinum only nine months after its initial 1994 release. And yet despite its immediate success, Petty’s most personal and liberated LP was still a slow bloomer in some respects.
Several of the songs flowed out faster than he could understand what they meant — the bucolic title track arrived in a single take as sharp and straight from the source as a glint of sunlight — and it wasn’t until years later that Petty realized he was actually singing an escape plan to himself (“You belong among the wildflowers / You belong in a boat out at sea”). Fans had to wait even longer to appreciate “Wildflowers” in full, as Warner Bros cut 10 entire tracks from the planned double album, the recorded versions of which didn’t get published until Petty’s family and bandmates arranged a re-release in October 2020, three years after the musician’s death from an accidental drug overdose.
And yet even now it appears “Wildflowers” might still have more to say, as “Sam Cooke, Legend” filmmaker Mary Wharton received a call last summer from Petty’s daughter Adria saying that she had a trove of archival 16mm footage from the recording sessions — most of which was shot by Petty’s go-to photographer and sometimes video director Martyn Atkins — and was hoping that Wharton could build a documentary around it. And that’s exactly what Wharton did to make “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” which cobbles together Atkins’ odds and ends, complements those candid glimpses with new testimonial nostalgia from Petty’s family, bandmates, and producer Rick Rubin, and, in an endearing effort, tries to fudge them into something more than a wispy collection of spare memories.
To write off “Somewhere You Feel Free” as a failure would seem to misapprehend what Wharton was hoping to achieve with it, as her warm and scattered doc isn’t purporting to be the definitive portrait of Tom Petty — or even that of a particularly crucial period of his life — so much as it’s offering a melodic sketch of a well-established artist as he steps into a wilderness that had been calling him for longer than he was able to hear it. “It’s soul music,” Petty says of “Wildflowers” at the start of the doc. “That’s what I think I am, a soul singer, because you have to connect with your soul in a way. These days, I feel more like me.” That faint and hazy process of self-becoming at 40 is the closest thing the film has to a central narrative, as it finds Petty sea-deep in a time of change that even he wouldn’t be able to identify until a while later.
“Wildflowers,” Wharton emphasizes, is an album about the need to feel free, even if that means ending up back where you started in some respects (it’s amusing to see Petty make such a point of liberating himself from the democracy of playing in a band, only to bring in all but one of the Heartbreakers to record on the album). The film seems to listen in when Petty accepts that “Sometimes you gotta save yourself” on the song “California,” which Wharton uses as a touchstone for the musician’s resigned need to move on (“It’s time to roll / I’m all done / It’s time we better hit the road”). And while much of the newly recorded interview footage feels like padding, Rick Rubin is always good for a shoeless sound byte or two, and he’s more than happy to genuflect on the healing nature of the album’s recording process or the hidden intricacy of its production.
Wharton does an expert job of lacing the songs themselves in between the context she provides for them, but amidst the studio sessions and tour footage “Somewhere You Feel Free” can’t avoid a kind of trap that music docs often fall into, especially ones that have been pulled together from such a clearly finite amount of pre-existing material: There’s only so much this film can say about the emotional texture of “Wildflowers” before it starts to sound like a tinny echo of the real McCoy. After a while you just want to stop the movie, cut out the middleman, and go listen to the album itself. Broader context or a clearer sense of conflict may have allowed Wharton to make this project into a more valuable listening guide of sorts, but there’s only so much you can do when trying to recapture the soul of a masterpiece with only a few half-empty cans of paint.
“Somewhere You Feel Free” doesn’t develop into a snapshot so much as a loving impression of a legend gone too soon. But the beautiful 16mm footage (with the new interviews shot to match) will trigger warm memories from Petty’s truest fans, and Wharton interprets the music in a way that should allow this film to serve as an irresistible entry point for neophytes who don’t realize how many Petty songs they already know by heart. More than anything else, however, this is a documentary about a man sitting in a recording studio with one skinny leg crossed over the other, a lit cigarette burning away between his lips, and the freedom that he’s searching for starting to fill up in his lungs.
“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” premiered at SXSW 2021. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.