'Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free' Gives An Intimate Look At His Legendary 'Wildflowers' Album
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“‘Wildflowers’ is probably just for people you love, or people you wish good to, or people you care about… you know how you wish them well. That song came to me; it’s one of the only times it ever happened to me in my life. I just stepped up in my home studio with the mic and played the whole song, straight from the top to the end, with all of the lyric and all the music in one go. And then I stopped the tape and played it back, and I was confused and kept playing it again and again. ‘Well, what do we work on? What do I change?’ I thought, ‘I’m not going to change it, I’m just going to leave it stream of consciousness.’” - Tom Petty on the song “Wildflowers”
For classic rock doc fans, the next few weeks are going to be a feast. Next week sees the premiere of Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road and Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary The Beatles: Get Back, culled from hours of session footage (complete with Andy Serkis giving a motion-capture performance as Gollum playing drums instead of Ringo) will premiere on Disney+ on Thanksgiving.
Personally, I’ve been most excited about Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free, a new film that follows Petty from 1993-1995 while recording and touring the legendary Wildflowers album. After premiering at SXSW in October, the documentary directed by Mary Wharton is now available on YouTube.
Last year, the Petty estate discovered hours of 16mm footage from the Sound City and Ocean Way Recording sessions in Los Angeles. A team that includes Petty’s daughter, Adria, put together the film, which combines the studio footage with home videos, tour rehearsals, a show at the Hollywood Bowl, and new interviews with producer Rick Rubin, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and others.
The documentary does a wonderful job of giving an intimate portrait of a turbulent but fruitful time in Petty’s life. Well into an enormously successful career with the Heartbreakers, Petty decided to try his hand at a solo album, releasing Full Moon Fever in 1989. It was a critical and commercial success, but record label MCA had initially rejected the effort (read more about tensions with the label while recording Hard Promises in my column here), and the decision to go solo was not a popular choice amongst the Heartbreakers. Petty returned with the band on Into the Great Wide Open but was looking for a reinvention after working with producer Jeff Lynne (ELO, fellow Travelling Wilbury) on his past two records.
Wildflowers was initially conceived as another solo effort with the legendary Rubin in the producer’s chair, but the Heartbreakers ended up playing for most of the sessions. The documentary also looks at the strenuous departure of original drummer Stan Lynch, who Steve Ferrone replaced through an audition process (Ferrone would man the throne until Petty died in 2017). Lynch’s last appearance would be on “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” the megahit recorded in the middle of the sessions to get out of the band’s MCA contract.
Not only was Petty having band problems, but his longtime marriage was also slowly failing, which plays a prominent role in the sometimes dark themes of the record. In an interview, Petty notes that it wasn’t his intention to conceptualize this but that it was evident that their inevitable divorce was on his mind. On songs like “Don’t Fade On Me” and “To Find a Friend,” these emotions are undeniable.
“I remember my hands on the piano. I remember recording the sounds of the beginning of it, but I don’t have any recollection of playing the actual take, and that’s a good sign. If you black out stone-cold sober during a take, then you’re inside the music.” - Benmont Tench on “Crawling Back to You”
Last year, the record was re-released as Wildflowers & All of the Rest including another album’s worth of phenomenal songs just as great as the original. The documentary dives deeper into why these songs found the cutting room floor in that the sessions for Wildflowers went on for a few years, intending to include around 30 songs for a double album. Now on Warner Bros Records by choice, Petty once again had a record rejected, but this time he agreed. Petty spent three months with Rubin choosing which songs would be amongst the final fifteen. I appreciate that Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free gives these deleted songs their proper due, especially the grateful “California,” and my favorite, “Hung Up and Overdue,” which features Ringo Starr on drums and Carl Wilson’s heavenly harmonies in one of his final performances.
As Wildflowers may be Petty’s most known album, this documentary works well in giving newcomers and casual fans the story behind its process. But longtime fans of the Heartbreakers will love the film. The 16mm footage matches the organic feel of the record, giving a glimpse of the artist as a person, with Petty at one point stating, “it’s hard to talk about yourself constantly. I just want to be a musician.” King of the Hill lovers will also appreciate Petty doing the voice that he would go on to record as the good-hearted Lucky on the show.
As Petty’s death was unexpected four years ago, Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free gives fans the first sense of closure since his passing and ends up being a celebration of a person who Adria Petty describes as “someone put on this earth to bring joy.” One of the most outstanding records of all time, and Petty’s most heartfelt statement, Wildflowers is given its proper due here in the form of an intimate documentary.
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free is available now in 4K on YouTube. Seriously, no streaming service is needed - just click the link above and enjoy.
“Everybody’s been knocked around a little bit, but you’ve got to keep some faith in yourself, and you’ll probably be alright.” - Tom Petty