Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free
The genesis of Tom Petty's most enduring album gets a full workout in this documentary using undiscovered 16 mm footage shot while recording "Wildflowers."
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I always liked Tom Petty, but it wasn’t until after he died that I started to love him.
There was always a connection with Petty, a fellow Florida boy who grew up down the road from where my journalism career started. Though he’d left Gainesville years before and never really looked back, the city and state always claimed him as their own.
He was never as famous or lauded as other contemporaneous figures in the singer/songwriter tradition, such as Bruce Springsteen. But after Petty passed away at age 67 after an accidental overdose — he’d endured terrible pain, actually playing his last concert tour with a broken hip — I began to delve deeper into his songbook.
I became reacquainted with the hits, of course, and was astonished at how many of them there were. Then I found songs that were lesser known but moved me in ways I hadn’t encountered with his earlier albums with the Heartbreakers.
Over the last six months I’ve been walking a lot, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to “Wallflowers,” his 1994 second solo album. The title track in particular has really stuck with me, with its message of well-wishes for a loved one — even if their journey toward happiness takes them far away from you.
Other songs took on colors and meaning the more I listened to them. Really, every song on the album is spectacular in its own way. It’s obviously a very personal work, something Petty worked on for two years during a pivotal time in his life and career, when he was considering moving on from the Heartbreakers and contemplating his marriage, which would end in divorce a few years after.
So it came as a surprise and delight to find out that a documentary was coming out specifically about “Wallflowers” and its creative process. “Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free,” directed by Mary Wharton, is a loving but inquisitive look at the writing and recording of “Wildflowers,” a seminal moment in the arc of an artist whose work I’ve grown to adore.
This is not a standard rock bio documentary — there’s nothing about Petty’s upbringing, the formation of the Hearbreakers, the Traveling Wilburys, and so own. It’s kind of a unicorn movie in that just focuses on one specific creative impulse, showing us how rare it is in the music business for someone to be able to do something so personal, and to have the freedom to do it so deliberately.
What makes this film possible is the discovery of a trove of 16 mm black-and-white footage shot during the album’s creation by longtime Petty chronicler Martyn Atkins. Combined with contemporaneous interviews with Petty and modern ones with all the key figures involved, it makes for an astonishingly complete historical and artistic record.
We talk to Rick Rubin, the new producer brought in by Petty because he wanted something more organic and less focused on hit records. Their M.O. was to always find the essence of each song and focused on supporting it, rather than having a preconceived idea of what it should be.
There’s George Darkoulius, a mirthful figure who plays some instruments on the album and is dubbed its “guru.” And Heartbreakers equipment manager Alan “Bugs” Weidel, who saves every instrument they ever played.
Petty’s daughter Adria Petty is here, providing insight on how even as a teen she saw “Wallflowers” as Petty’s creative therapy for himself and his family, preparing them all for divorce — even if Petty himself didn’t consciously know it at the time.
Though it wasn’t officially a Heartbreakers album, Petty ended up bringing in most of his bandmates because he couldn’t find musicians he felt comfortable with. This includes bassist Howie Epstein, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell, all of whom appear to give their thoughts and recollections.
The best bit is where Campbell, Tench and Rubin get together for an extended three-way conversation in which it becomes clear this album was one of the milestones in each of their own lives.
Tench says that for some of the recordings, he remembers sitting down and remembers being finished — but not actually playing. It’s a good thing: “If you black out stone cold sober during a take, then you’re inside the music,” he says.
The notable exception is drummer Stan Lynch. Tensions that had been growing between him and Petty for years came to a boil during the creation of “Wildflowers,” which Lynch saw as an overlong distraction from doing Heartbreakers records and tours. They actually had to take a break from the album to record a couple of contractually obligated tracks for their greatest hits album, and eventually Petty fired Lynch from his solo album — and the band.
Englishman Steve Ferrone was brought in, and the rhythmic compatibility — both musically and in mood— was obvious.
The documentary takes us through the creation of each song that made the album, which at one point was so packed they considered a double album. I appreciated each of these mini-stories, which brings a lot of insight I’ll think about when I listen to them next.
Among the most gobsmacking revelations: Petty’s assertion that the title track for “Wildflowers” wasn’t so much written as it just appeared to him, turning on a tape machine and picking out the entire complete song with lyrics and melody — “in one go.”
This is the romantic version of artistic creation, but of course it’s usually a painstaking process of give and take where a song can change completely from inception to finish — as illustrated where Petty plays the original version of “I Won’t Back Down” as a jaunty ukulele tune.
Rubin underscores this point with a pivotal recollection: “(Tom) told me ‘Wildflowers’ scares him because he’s not really sure why it’s as good as it is. So it has this haunting feeling for him.”
And that’s the true focus of “Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free” — the genesis of greatness. It’s a mystery, though a bit less so after this achingly lovely documentary.