After running through the festival circuit — including a Best Documentary Film prize at the Boulder Film Festival and an Audience Award at the South By Southwest Film Festival — Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers is about to sprout for wider audiences, which director Mary Wharton couldn’t be happier about.
The intimate and revealing examination of the late rocker’s triple-platinum 1994 solo album debuts in theaters worldwide via Trafalgar Releasing on October 20th, which would have been Petty’s 71st birthday, and during November it will plant itself on Petty’s YouTube channel via YouTube Originals.
“I love this idea of this ‘event cinema,’ where it’s just going to be all over the world, in so many different places,” Wharton (Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President, Sam Cooke: Legend, Elvis Lives!) tells Consequence. “It’s exciting for me to reach such a big audience. I’m a storyteller, and to be able to talk to a lot of people like this is super gratifying.”
Somewhere You Feel Free certainly has a story to tell — and is a story in itself.
The impetus for the movie was four hours of footage shot by Martyn Atkins between 1993-95, while Petty and producer Rick Rubin were working on Wildflowers and when the Heartbreakers convened to record new tracks, including “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” for the 1993 Greatest Hits album. The material was a revelation to those in the Petty estate, especially in that the notoriously private and guarded Petty allowed that kind of access to his working process.
“Martyn started coming around and somehow managed to get my dad’s confidence and comfort level to a place I don’t think it had ever been… spending time in our home or studio like that,” Adria Petty, one of the documentary’s executive producers, said during a SXSW virtual panel discussion. “You can only imagine what it felt like — ‘Oh, my God, there’s footage of him and Rick making this record! This is insane!’ We owe [Atkins] a great debt for documenting this stuff so well.”
With that footage as a starting point, Wharton — who worked with Adria Petty at VH1 and worked on the 1995 Petty special God Bless Our Mobile Home — saw an opportunity to provide a different kind of insight than previous films and certainly interviews had captured.
“What was really fascinating for me in this project was getting to see him struggle a little bit, getting to see that he wasn’t always sure of himself,” Wharton says. “I think to see Tom.. just being a human, a supremely talented and intelligent and funny and cool dude, but he was also a regular guy who had the same kind of struggles we all do. I think even Adria was a little taken aback because he’d never shown that side to her. That, to me, was kind of a privilege. I just feel so lucky and grateful that this material even existed.”
Wharton and her team did troll the vaults for other footage, as well as interviews with Petty to ensure his voice was part of Somewhere You Feel Free (its title was taken from a lyric in the song “Wildflowers”). There are also extensive new interviews, conducted virtually, with Rubin, Adria Petty, original Heartbreakers (and Petty’s Mudcrutch mates) Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone, who first recorded with Petty on Wildflowers before becoming a Heartbreaker for the next 14 years.
Rubin, Campbell and Tench did one session together around a fire pit at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios, and there are also some revelatory insights from Alan “Bugs” Weidel, manager of the Heartbreakers Clubhouse facility, who also shows off a whiteboard spreadsheet chronicling the progress of the Wildflowers album, which Petty initially envisioned as a two-disc set.
“It was a little challenging because we were doing it in the middle of the pandemic, so I had to do the interviews by Zoom,” recalls Wharton. “But they’re very smart guys and they’re very articulate and they were very cool about it. I’m sure it was very painful for them to dig back into those memories and talk. And it is very poignant when they start to get emotional about it. We had to, I think, be careful about how to use that material because I didn’t want the film to be too maudlin. I would like to think it was perhaps, hopefully, a healing process as opposed to a painful one, but I’m sure there was a lot of all those emotions.”