In the last few years, I’ve happily watched and reviewed documentaries about Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish, both of which were presented on major streaming services (“Gaga: Five Foot Two” on Netflix, the current “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” on Apple Plus) and made with the full cooperation of the artists in question. So it wouldn’t have been shocking if either of those films turned out to be a glorified promotional tool. On the other hand, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” which premiered today at SXSW, is built around a trove of 16mm footage discovered in 2020 in the Tom Petty archive. The film was shot by Petty’s filmographer Martyn Atkins while Petty was recording his second solo album, “Wildflowers” (1994), and performing on the concert tour that followed its release.
In 2021, just saying the phrase “16mm” can give you a tingle. It sounds so raw and private, so home-movie analog. But here’s an irony for you. Both the Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish docs are, to me, highly accomplished pop-star profiles that reveal their subjects with compelling candor, showing you just enough warts. Whereas the 16mm footage in “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” though it’s presented with a ragged black edge around it, offers the kind of friendly, nothing-too-messy, straight-down-the-middle scenes you’d expect to see in a promotional CD extra. The recording-studio stuff was shot in black-and-white, and what it looks like, mostly, is a very hip beer commercial.
Petty died in 2017, and this movie about the making of “Wildflowers” has been assembled, by director Mary Wharton (“Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President”), as a reverent tribute to him. Petty’s fans (and who isn’t one, really?) will find a lot to enjoy in it. And if you share Petty’s own stated belief about “Wildflowers” — that it’s the greatest album he ever made — you may find this gregarious, it’s-all-good chronicle of the recording of it to be an enthralling experience. Petty himself certainly lends it a chewy charismatic center. In his early 40s when the footage was shot, he was by this point a wholesome if slightly raffish, sexy but slightly weathered all-American classic, like the Kevin Costner of rock ‘n’ roll. Offstage, an instinctive intelligence comes off him. He’s got a bit of Dylan’s smile-with-a-sneer, and like Dylan he radiates the sense of not missing a trick.
Yet I’ve seen documentaries about the making of a single album that took you deep inside the psychodynamics of a particular band. Films like “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (2004), the one-hour-long “Stones in Exile” (2010), or the most under-appreciated great rock doc of the last two decades, “From the Sky Down” (2011), Davis Guggenheim’s revelatory look at the making of U2’s “Achtung Baby.”
“Somewhere You Feel Free” touches on the conflicts that were central to Petty’s life as he was recording “Wildflowers”: the falling apart of his marriage, the fact that his band of 20 years, the Heartbreakers, were starting to see cracks in the seams. Most of the Heartbreakers wound up playing on the album, but their drummer, Stan Lynch, did not (he was replaced by Steve Ferrone), and they were used, in a sense, as session musicians. Petty, who we hear in interview clips on the soundtrack, says, “I really wanted to be free of the democratic process.” He was in therapy for the first time, and conceived “Wildflowers” as a singer-songwriter album; the songs have a personal sway to them, a jingle-jangle of confessional warmth. So does the movie. Yet it’s so removed from having a dark side that you know you’re getting the feel-good version of a Tom Petty portrait.
For the no-rolling-stone-unturned version, you need to go back to “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the four-hour documentary that Peter Bogdanovich made about them in 2007. That was a movie that balanced good vibes with the ego and craziness of rock ‘n’ roll. Yet if the cautiously honed, stage-managed quality of “Somewhere You Feel Free” makes it, in the end, a rather minor rock doc, it’s still very worth seeing. I don’t think “Wildflowers” is close to being Petty’s greatest album (it’s too staid), yet in its broken-heart-on-the-sleeve way it’s a lyrical and sometimes gorgeous piece of work. You hear the man who made it in every note, and you come away from the film wanting to know more about him.
He’d been recording steadily at MCA with Jeff Lynne, the pop soundboard maestro of ELO who was also his fellow Traveling Wilbury, but he wanted a new sound for his second solo album. So he signed a contract with Warner Bros. (home of the Wilburys) and embraced an offer to work with Rick Rubin, the Biblical-bearded wunderkind of the hip-hop recording studio, who was then just 30. Rubin, interviewed in the film, confesses that he’d never been a fan of Petty’s (“He was a little melodic for my tastes”), at least not until his first solo album, “Full Moon Fever,” in 1989. What he did was to simplify and purify the Petty sound, making him sound like a man with a guitar again. The film shows you what a casual master Petty was — the title track, with its bittersweet glow, is a song he improvised in one take in his little music room at home, and Rubin magnified its lovely folkie lushness yet kept it real.
There are interviews with all the musicians, and also with Petty’s daughter Adria (who is one of the film’s executive producers), and everyone testifies to what an awesomely positive experience the recording of “Wildflowers” was. I don’t question it, yet we hear one too many times how much they all loved making the album, loved making the album, loved making the album… They loved making it so much that they kept on recording it, to the point that they had enough material for a double album, and seriously considered releasing it that way, but decided instead to spend three months chopping 10 tracks out of it (they were released on an expanded edition after Petty’s death). For the most part, we don’t get to see the musicians discovering the songs, or reworking them, though there is a short section in which Petty tinkers around with the chord sequence of “To Find a Friend.”
Tellingly, we also see footage of Tom huddling with the Heartbreakers in a different setting to fulfill Petty’s contract at MCA by recording two tracks for a greatest-hits album. They come up with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and I’m sorry, but after all that “Wildflowers” floweriness, the song simply kicks. You can see why Tom Petty might have thought that “Wildflowers” was his greatest achievement. Yet if the album takes you on a lilting tour of Petty’s soul, the best Heartbreakers songs do something this introspective record couldn’t. They take you into the great wide open.