Tuesday, October 19, 2021

film review: Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers


Directed by Mary Wharton

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

This new documentary unearths the sessions of Tom Petty's Wildflowers album, based on 16mm footage shot by a friend in 1993-5. It amounts to a tribute rather than an exploration of the late musician, told with care and respect, though offering few revelations. Petty fans will revel in seeing him recording in the studio and discussing his songwriting craft. Occasionally, the normally personal Petty opens up. This is significant, since Petty was a guarded individual though apropos here, because Wildflowers was one of his most reflective, personal statements. Hence, this is a canny choice of a period in the artist's life to spotlight.

The film is largely seen in black-and-white, and intercuts to concert footage, say at the Hollywood Bowl, or to an interview in colour. The B&W apporach casts the film in the past. Remembrances abound, mostly laudatory which is frustrating for the viewer. However, patience leads Petty to eventually admit that Wildflowers was about his troubled marriage, but even here he says it was unconsciously done. Petty's daughter disagrees; she insists this album declared her father's feelings more than other statement. She also admits that her dad was going through therapy at the time.

Rick Rubin weighs in on the actual recording. He enters the story explaining that he found Petty too "melodic" until Full Moon Fever, a global smash that (ironically) yielded several radio-friendly hits. Petty admits that he never officially hired Rubin who, instead, was simply there offering feedback on a regular basis. Rubin chimes in that his hip-hop background influenced the rhythm of the hit, You Don't Know How It Feels. He also lauds Ringo Starr's guest drumming for its presence. Also getting a nod was Mary Jane's Last Dance that Petty quickly wrote and recorded to fill a greatest hits collection. Not bad for a knock-off.

Aside from Petty and his daughter, past band members like Mike Campbell and producer Rick Rubin chime in. The latter confesses that he found Petty and the Heartbreakers too melodic until Full Moon Fever, Petty's worldwide hit album that ironically featured pop hits like Free Fallin'. Song excerpts are illustrated by effective animation. Overall, the film flows well and gently guides the viewer through the making of Wildflowers. It doesn't dive too deeply, though. After all, we don't hear much about the troubled marriage after the initial mention though that friction fuelled the heart of the album. However, this film is the closest that fans and viewers so far have gotten of Tom Petty. Thankfully, Somewhere You Feel Free, honours what is perhaps the most important work by this beloved rock 'n' roll musician.

Somewhere You Feel Free premieres in selected theatres for a limited engagement across Canada, starting October 20.