“There’s really no rules with what we’re doing now. Songs is what it’s about.” – Tom Petty
Filmmaker Mary Wharton takes music fans deep into one of the most iconic records of all-time with Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free. It’s a moving, strangely cathartic portrait of an already accomplished musician rediscovering joy in his craft while producing some of the best music in his storied career.
Combining never-before-seen 16mm studio and tour footage — mostly captured by Perry’s go-to photographer and sometimes video director Martyn Atkins — with testimonials from everyone involved, Somewhere You Feel Free explores the making of Perry’s 1994 album Wildflowers. The brisk, 90-minute final product feels as loose and free-spirited yet precise as the material itself. It’s not a biography as much as it is an analysis of the record. Wharton wants to know how a collection of songs that seem to go against everything an artist is known for can become so widely recognized as an essential part of our cultural fabric. Whether or not the film finds an answer is up to viewers to decide, but the vibes never disappoint.
The footage alone makes Somewhere You Feel Free worth seeing, but equally compelling is Petty’s voice recounting the album’s creation. His insights, all pulled from other projects, reveal the moments that made Wildflowers memorable to the man behind it. That, combined with memories and perspective from Rick Rubin, The Heartbreakers, and Petty’s family, captures a moment when the universe aligned in such a way that this group of fortunate souls was able to capture lightning in a bottle.
But again, Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is not what some music doc fans might expect. Its focus on a single release aside, the feature doesn’t attempt to make the record more important than its existence warrants. Instead, Wharton uses the record to draw parallels between creativity and the need to process our lives’ events. She reveals how the songs on Wildflowers were a form of therapy for Petty, who crafted the album between a very public tussle with his former label and shortly before getting a divorce. His life was changing, and the music of Wildflowers was his way of navigating that evolution. As he explains, “I didn’t hold anything back. I just let it all come out.”
There is a sense of catharsis echoing throughout Somewhere You Feel Free that viewers will immediately recognize. Whether it’s in the testimonials or the studio footage, every moment conveys a sense that these songs helped everyone involved in many ways. Not unlike how hearing certain music at the right moment can turn a day around of make someone feels less alone, making Wildflowers allowed this group to transition to another era of their lives and career. It made some individuals stars while proving that others are capable of more than they may have known. You get the feeling that this material had to exist. The universe needed it as much as Tom Petty himself.
Wildflowers may not be your favorite record from his catalog, but Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free will make you a believer. Wharton has crafted a stunning portrait of the artistic process and all the uncertainty that comes with it. As Petty finds comfort with himself and the direction of his vision, you too begin to believe a bit more in what lies ahead. We never know where the roads of life will lead, but thankfully, Petty left us with a soundtrack for whatever comes out way.