Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is one of those documentaries that is arguably most suitable for a festival like SXSW. That’s not simply because the platform is one where music and cinema merge, but, more notably, because it feels like a match for the distinctly festive quality of Petty’s personality and his artistic output, which many believe is best reflected in his sophomore solo album (and his first with Warner Bros.), Wildflowers. Clearly forgoing the opportunity for bombast or any larger-than-life experience film, director Mary Wharton instead relies on a collection of never-before-seen black-and-white 16mm footage of Petty and his album recording sessions and subsequent tour (shot between 1993 and 1995 by filmographer Martyn Atkins), combined with recent interviews with some of Petty’s collaborators. It’s all presented in easy, rhythmic montage, and the director remains entirely faithful to the relaxed and lighthearted vibe of the rock legend’s seminal output. It all gives the impression that what’s of most importance to Wharton here is to authentically capture and articulate the seemingly effortless but nonetheless relentless task of the artist and his cadre of friends who were celebrating the joys and sorrows of life at a very specific moment in time.
This being the case, it’s no wonder that Wharton oscillates between archival images and contemporary conversations with those involved in the project — particularly producer Rick Rubin and two original Heartbreakers bandmates, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench — since it’s a work of art that remains deeply relevant today. But this approach also gives space for Petty’s friends and bandmates to casually contemplate the past, specifically in the aftermath of Petty’s tragic 2017 death of an accidental overdose at the too-young age of 66 years old. Somewhere You Feel Free readily welcomes the audience into an experience of the amiable stories surrounding the creation of Wildflowers, and, perhaps more essentially, successfully extends a sense of belonging to its broader cultural and artistic history. For Tom Petty die-hards, Wharton’s soulful effort will undoubtedly deliver cravable documentation of a moment in time worth cherishing, a fanatic’s holy grail of sorts, and for those who remain ill-versed in or ambivalent toward Petty’s work, the film affords an exceptional opportunity to understand the aura that surrounds the rock star and this classic album. If the quality of the film is any indication, viewers should be hustling to go listen to the album before the credits even roll.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.