From director Mary Wharton, the documentary Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free feels like a secret glimpse into a lost part of history. Considering that we are less than three decades removed from the time period of this film’s focus, this statement might be seen as hyperbole at first glance. However, I honestly believe that this exemplifies the late Tom Petty’s legacy as one of the great storytellers, pop culture icons, and artists of his generation and beyond. Any opportunity for audiences to peer into his beautiful mind and enchanting creative process has a certain level of sanctity. Taking into account that this sacred view happens to be through the lens of recently rediscovered 16 mm film from 1993-1995, chronicling the development of Petty’s Wildflowers album, it becomes clearer why Wharton’s documentary has such a spell-binding effect.
The 16 mm footage in question comes from Petty’s longtime collaborator and filmographer, Martyn Atkins. The pureness of what is captured in this grainy black-and-white footage is mesmerizing. There is a healthy blend of sequences featuring Petty and his band in the recording studio, mixed with shots of him hanging out at home and living his life. (Feel free to call this “vibing” or “chilling,” however you see fit). There is a spiritual sensation to the atmosphere of these clips. I would compare it to a nature photographer catching a snapshot of a rare species in its natural habitat. Supporting the 16 mm footage are other montages of b-roll from concerts, music videos, and interviews over the years. Thus, not every minute of the documentary is comprised of never-before-seen footage, but the exclusive reels are still used to maximum effect.
At its heart, Somewhere You Feel Free is a character study delivered in the vessel of a documentary. The Wildflowers album is regarded by many Petty scholars to be the most direct reflection of his current (contemporaneously) psychological state than any of his other albums. During the time of writing and recording, Petty was actually going to therapy for the first time in his life. The complex process of coming to terms with one’s own thoughts on life, personal identity, and the world was mirrored in the songwriting of this album. Wildflowers was also written right before he was about to divorce his wife, which influenced some of the lyrics. Adria Petty, Tom’s daughter, provides especially compelling insight in the documentary as she is interviewed about her father’s creation of Wildflowers. As such a close family member, she knew Tom on an emotional level more personally and intimately than other people. Adria’s commentary on her father’s lyricism and storytelling is riveting, making deductions from the subtext that would be much more difficult to interpret for someone less familiar with Tom.
Practically every stage of the album’s development is covered over the course of Somewhere You Feel Free. This documentary tells a complete story and leaves very few stones unturned. From the philosophies of the songwriting, to the instrumentation, beats, and tempo on the technical side of production, we get a full picture of what made Wildflowers such a living and breathing work of art. We are shown interview segments of Petty literally just sitting in his backyard, talking about the songwriting. This is pure and unfiltered Tom, presented exactly how he is. And, to balance the perspectives, there are more recently recorded interviews with his old bandmates and crew members folded into the mix.
One quote from a person in this group beautifully encapsulates the Wildflowers album: “It’s organic. All the tracks are recorded by human beings.”
This is a natural, raw, human album — adjectives that can also be applied to Tom Petty as an individual. But, it was also said that “Wildflowers scares him, because he’s not really sure why it’s as good as it is.”
All at once, this is an ironic, tragic, and romantic phenomenon. This is an album so complex, from the deepest depths of his soul, that Petty himself struggles to wrap his mind around his own creation. As he put it, some of the content in the album is “downright dark,” but the ultimate message of the music is that there is “always something redeemable about human beings.”
By the last 15 minutes or so of the documentary, I did notice the runtime beginning to wear on slightly. Within the narrative of the doc, there are a few minutes dedicated to each track from the album, which is a famously long album in the first place. (There is a whole narrative of additional context surrounding the length of Wildflowers. Warner Bros Records President Lenny Waronker asked Petty to scale down the 25+ songs of what was originally slated to be a double album into the 15-track version that was eventually released in 1994). The documentary’s process of examining every track from the album is indeed rich in its thematic and technical exploration, but the repetitiveness becomes noticeable.
Setting that relatively minor criticism aside, Somewhere You Feel Free lives up to everything you could hope for, both in terms of a Tom Petty story and a music documentary in general. The cool, suave charm of Petty permeates every moment, the brilliance of his artistic wisdom shines ever brighter, and the humanity of the late, great legend is on full display. There is never a bad time to be reminded of the human spirit’s potential for redemption. The package of this documentary and the associated Wildflowers album is good for the heart and soul.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 17th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.