Tom Petty was at the peak of his powers in the early ’90s, having recorded dozens of hits and covered remarkable ground as an artist. But he was also up against a changing tide of music with the rise of grunge and other mainstream pop music. The new documentary from director Mary Wharton, “Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free,” shows how he navigated that “mid-life crisis” to produce one of his best albums, “Wildflowers.”
“Somewhere You Feel Free,” which is premiering at SXSW this week, is a treasure trove of footage that was recorded during the “Wildflowers” sessions and unearthed last year for “Wildflowers & All the Rest,” the expanded edition of the classic 1994 album. Wharton’s documentary captures the grace and experimentation of “Wildflowers,” but it also explains how Petty — who had recently fired his longtime Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, was trying to get out of his recording contract and boldly decided to work with producer Rick Rubin for the first time — had to find his mojo again.
“Tom was very much at a crossroads in his life and trying to figure out how to put the pieces in place to live the life that he wanted to have at that moment and going through a classic mid-life crisis. As someone who just went through my own mid-life crisis, I can relate to that on so many levels,” Wharton told TheWrap. “You get to see Tom; he’s not always sure of himself. The creative life is hard because you have to just be able to trust yourself and trust your instincts, because there’s no right or wrong answer ever, really.”
“Wildflowers” would turn out to be one of the late musician’s most successful and acclaimed albums. Behind tracks like “You Wreck Me” and “It’s Good to Be King,” “Wildflowers” went triple platinum and notched a No. 1 hit on the U.S. mainstream rock chart with “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
But “Somewhere You Feel Free” shows viewers how Petty was self-conscious about the album’s quieter sound and unsure of the choice to make it a solo record rather than a Heartbreakers album. He also had to make the difficult decision not to release “Wildflowers” as a double album, instead choosing to save 10 tracks for what would be the “All the Rest” box set, released after his death.
“Even he sometimes struggled and questioned himself, and he wasn’t always sure that he was moving in the right direction or putting his capo on the right place on the guitar neck,” Wharton said. “Little things like that are so telling and are such a good lesson for me to learn that even people who I have enormous respect for, their creativity and talent go through some of the same moments or questioning that I do. It’s very fulfilling and satisfying to know that, and it gives you a little hope.”
Wharton said she felt blessed to make “Somewhere You Feel Free” after not knowing how she would continue working during the pandemic, calling the film’s dose of ’90s nostalgia a “gift from the gods.” But it wasn’t an easy undertaking. The original studio footage — which included four hours of beautiful black and white film from the “Wildflowers” recording sessions — was shot in such a way where the camera and the audio would start and stop at different points, with much of it shot at an unusual frame rate intended for TV rather than film. Very little of the footage was properly synced up, so Wharton had to spend a lot of time reading Petty’s lips to even know what song he was singing.
The real challenge, though, was finding the humanity in Petty’s story while also giving viewers insight into the unique creative process that went into “Wildflowers.”
“There’s a fine line. You never want to see exactly how the sausage gets made or you’ll never eat sausage again,” Wharton said. “How do we use this material to get at a bigger story about Tom and learn more about what was going on in his life outside of the studio, without it feeling gratuitous or salacious but giving you insight into who he is?”
Seats for “Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free” are sold out on SXSW, but you can still register for the Q&A featuring the filmmakers, including director Mary Wharton, here.