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SXSW 2021: “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” Film Review

In 1994, Tom Petty’s second solo album, titled “Wildflowers,” went on to become a massive success. It was the fastest-selling album of his career, and many believe it to be the best record he’s ever made. Mary Wharton’s documentary, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” explores the period of time where he put this album together. Using archival footage that was shot on 16mm film — combined with current interviews from his family, producers and the Heartbreakers — “Somewhere You Feel Free” is an intimate look at Petty’s creative process, emphasizing the emotional impact that writing “Wildflowers” had on him.

The footage, which was found in early 2020, was originally shot between 1993 and 1995 by Martyn Atkins, Petty’s filmographer. It’s a combination of studio sessions and concert footage that focuses on the creation of the “Wildflowers” album, along with the tour that followed. Like many music documentaries, there is an abundance of shots with Petty writing and performing classic songs from the album. However, some of the best parts are the quieter moments in between.

“Somewhere You Feel Free” shows how Petty took a turn from his previous work in favor of a more introspective approach to songwriting. It was a period of immense change in his life as well, when he was even shifting labels from MCA to Warner Bros. In a way, “Wildflowers” was an album that helped liberate him, not just as an artist from the Heartbreakers — though, funny enough, many of them actually returned to help him put the album together — but in his personal life as well.

There’s a moment when Rick Ruben, the producer on “Wildflowers,” says, “There’s something about the artist’s work that has a little bit of a diary-like aspect — the work reflects a time in someone’s life.” For Petty, “Wildflowers” was a therapeutic release. Even his daughter, Adria, reflects in the documentary on her first time listening to the album. For her, she could also sense the change in the air with her father. She took “Wildflowers” as a clear sign that her parents wouldn’t be staying together. And that’s true, as the album was released right before Petty went through a divorce with his wife of over 20 years, Jane Benyo.

Petty longed for freedom and reinvention, which he clearly states in the album’s titular song as well: “Far away from your trouble and worries / You belong somewhere you feel free.” These lyrics are a strong central part of this documentary’s narrative. However, the documentary never digs much deeper into Petty’s personal life. If anything, “Somewhere You Feel Free” is simply a love letter to an artist gone too soon.

Even though there are times when the documentary is bogged down by a slow pace, it’s still an interesting peek behind the curtain at Petty’s songwriting process. “Wildflowers” was an album that allowed Petty to express more of who he is and explore what he wants out of life, resulting in a monumental body of work that took until October of 2020 to be released in full. “Somewhere You Feel Free” may be a brief glimpse at the artist, but it’s one that longtime fans and newcomers alike will enjoy.

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